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Published: September 9th 2009
En route from the Kinabatangan to Sepilok the bus passed a few oil palms by the side of the road. And by a few I mean a few million! Malaysia is infamous for replacing forest with oil palm plantations but until you actually see it first-hand you really can’t grasp the problem. And even after seeing it its still impossible, like trying to imagine the Universe. The biggest plantations seem to be owned by the Sime Darby company. I’d passed one in Sarawak that went on and on for tens of kilometres, and where-ever roads cut through it you could see that it kept going back to the far distant hills beyond. The one by Kinabatangan dwarfed that one though. We drove through it for what seemed like forever. At a petrol stop overlooking the landscape the plantation stretched to the horizon. The grotesque enormity of its scale was absolutely unbelievable. Even more unbelievable was that on the other side of the road what was presumably the same plantation carried on to the other horizon. And from that point for the next twenty kilometres towards Sepilok was a plantation owned by IOI that also reached horizon to horizon on either side
of the road. Borneo is doomed I tell you.
I stayed at the Sepilok B&B because I’d heard it was right outside the orangutan rehabilitation centre. I guess a twenty minute walk along the main road could be considered to be right outside. I wasn’t actually interested in going to Sepilok to see the orangutans. The Semenggoh centre outside Kuching didn’t do much for me and I’ve now seen real wild orangs at the Danum Valley and on the Kinabatanagan River. At Sepilok they do night tours though which are reputed to be very good. At Bako, for instance, I met a guy who’d seen two tarsiers and a slow loris on a night tour at Sepilok. They’re not cheap at 40 Ringgits per hour but you’re not allowed into Sepilok at night by yourself. The tour started at 6pm which is well before dark but that’s when you start if you want to see the red giant flying squirrels. They come out of their tree holes at dusk and run up and down in the canopy chasing one another through the branches till it gets too dark to see them any more. They really are wonderful and bizarre
creatures, very big with very long skinny tails. Their legs are also long but somewhat encumbered by their gliding membranes, so when they run up the tree trunks they use a curious leech-like looping movement which gives them an odd resemblance to a mix of monkey and miniature tree kangaroo. Much weirder animals than I would have imagined. The flying squirrels were the only mammals of the night however, probably because it had been bucketing down an hour before and everything was dripping wet, but there were naturally frogs everywhere, nothing particularly outstanding but some species I hadn’t seen before. We also found three Wagler’s pit vipers and what I think was a baby dog-toothed cat snake.
I made a couple of short trips into Sandakan during my stay because I needed to replenish my wallet and buy some odds and ends, like new shower jandals for which I had to get a pair two sizes too small because they don’t make them in my size in Borneo! Sandakan’s a town about an hour by bus from Sepilok and its where most tourists base themselves for visiting Sepilok and the Kinabatanagan (I think the guide-books recommend this and as
greater swamp frog (Limnonectes ingeri) at Sepilok
one of the few frogs I've found in Borneo with eye-shine!
we all know, most tourists only do what their guide-books tell them to). At the end of World War II the last of the Japanese forces were routed from Sandakan by the Australians who, with their usual degree of finesse, somehow managed to completely level the town. Not a single building was left standing. For the locals it must have been a blessing in disguise because they could rebuild for modern times - before the war there weren’t any mobile phone shops in Sandakan but now every second shop on every street sells phones and accessories. That’s progress for you!
The plan had been to spend just two nights at the Sepilok B&B and do two night tours and also to spend one morning birdwatching as Sepilok is reputed to be a good place to see the Bornean bristlehead. The problem with Sepilok for birding is that the gates to the forest are only open twice a day, at 9-12 and 2-4pm. I’d read of birders getting in with hired guides earlier in the morning around 6am, but when I asked they said they didn’t allow that. I guess it’s a variable thing. It turned out that I didn’t
rough guardian frog (Limnonectes finchi) at the RDC
(another of the frogs who's eyes shine in torch-light or flash)
even go back to Sepilok anyway after that first night because I found a different place that I’d never even heard of before, and it was only 400 metres from where I was staying. Its called the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) and it was so much what I was looking for that I rang up my next destination (the Poring Lodge) and moved my booking so I could stay an extra two nights where I was. Sepilok is 30 Ringgits entry, whether for birding or to watch the orangutans feeding, the RDC is only 10 Ringgits. Sepilok is only open at very specific hours, the RDC is open officially 8-5 but you can stay till 10pm and enter at any time in the morning and just get your ticket off the security guard. Sepilok essentially just has one trail, the RDC has many. Not only that but there is also a sturdy metal canopy walkway 10 metres off the ground with towers at either end that are 26.5 metres high. For birdwatchers its so much better than Sepilok, for mammal-watchers even more so because you can wander round at night without paying for a guide, for frog-watchers it’s a Mecca
white-lipped frog (Rana chalconota: syn. Hylarana raniceps) at the RDC
this is its night-time colouration; for the day-time colouration there's a good photo in my blog entry about Kubah National Park
with its streams, mud-holes, ditches, puddles and artificial ponds.
There’s a red giant flying squirrel living in the really big tree at the Trogon Tower end of the walkway, who comes out at dusk to fly around. There are Prevost’s squirrels and giant squirrels and plain pigmy squirrels during the day. I even saw an orangutan from the walkway. Although I’d hesitate to call it a “wild” orangutan as the RDC forest is continuous with the Sepilok forest, it was in a natural setting, behaving in a natural manner, so it was nice to watch. On my final evening I was up on the walkway waiting for the red giant flying squirrel to appear. I’d seen ear-spot, Prevost’s, pigmy and giant squirrels already that day so I thought I’d make it a squirrel day and add a fifth. There were some other people up there waiting for the squirrel as well, but when he came out he glided straight off in the opposite direction and disappeared so it wasn’t so good for them. But while I was talking to them, and pointing out the nearby branch on which the red giant had sat for twenty minutes the evening before,
a completely unexpected black giant flying squirrel came gliding in, landed on the tree trunk and ran up to sit on the very branch I’d just been pointing to. It was like I was some sort of wizard pulling squirrels out of thin air. I have to say that while the red giants are very attractive with their bright reddish fur, the black giants look like pure concentrated evil, sort of a cross between a huge vampire bat and a gremlin, especially when their eyes are glowing back at you in the spotlight like balls of fire. Still a fantastic creature though. It seemed like it was even harder to find the birds at the RDC than at the Danum Valley - there was a Spanish guy wandering around for two days without seeing anything before he gave up and moved on - but that black giant flying squirrel definitely made my stay there worthwhile.
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