Borneo (Sabah) – an experience!

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Asia » Malaysia
July 21st 2011
Published: December 25th 2017
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Geo: 4.47134, 118.605

Click on pictures to enlarge - will help with "critters". All underwater pictures and the 3 pictures of Sipdan are courtesy of Mathew Lee.

Arrived in Kota Kinabalu and after a little difficulty (taxi driver did not know where our hostel was) arrived at Masada Backpackers which is very clean, comfortable, friendly with great breakfasts included (help yourself any time of day) and the only down side being the walls which have the same soundproofing capacity as newspaper. It was a pleasant stay, and from the town, which is mainly post war but not what you could call modern, we made a couple of excursions. One was to the Kinabalu Park which is the area from which walkers start their climb up Mount Kinabalu (4095 m). Despite the books all recommending it as a good bird watching site we saw very little.

We had decided before arriving that the climb was not for us and we were reassured that it was a good decision when other walkers returned to the hostel and we observed their condition. Most were in discomfort, many in real pain and for some reason we couldn't fathom, even though they explained it to us in broken English, another group had their legs randomly dotted with sticking plasters. As one reasonably fit looking young Irish man said, “it was sheer pain every step of the way”. The usual walk timetable is they climb for 4 hours or so to arrive at the overnight stop late afteroon, then they start walking again at 2.30am to reach the summit by sunrise. A quick descent has them back to the park before lunch. The reason it is such a challenge is that the rock outcrop is very steep and slippery when wet, which is most of the time. Ropes are necessary to provide assistance up to the top.

The museum was another interesting excursion, especially the outdoor Heritage village (which is like Singleton in West Sussex) where a collection of original long houses have been brought together from different parts of Borneo to show the homes of various ethnic groups. We followed this up with an evening visit to Mari Mari, (which means welcome in the local language) a traditional village in which the original activities are demonstrated. It is a tourist attraction but well done as it provides a lot of information and gives a snapshot of what life in the long house was like. I had never appreciated how versatile bamboo is. It provides the construction material for the houses which have no nails but are tied together with more bamboo. Then small bamboo stems are used for drinking cups, larger ones for storage, bee keeping, cooking pots, tools, kindling to light fires etc. The list seems endless.

However, for me the greatest surprise was the trampoline. Yes, every long house worth its name had one. Using wooden branches to give support and “bounce”, the beautifully constructed trampoline took pride of place upstairs where it was used for fun during social gatherings. Now, we are talking about head hunters here. They head hunted for different reasons but the most common was when a man wanted to marry he had to bring home a head (detached from the body of course) to prove that he could protect his prospective bride. Then picture the scene, he returns triumphant, clutching a head, the group celebrate with a feast and then they trampoline the evening away together! I don't know if it is just me but that Alice in Wonderland image caused a mild attack of hysteria. One head was on display in a house and we were assured it was a replica because, “it would be very disrespectful to the dead person to put his head where everyone would see it”. I would have thought removing it in the first place was a little more disrespectful!

Kota Kinabalu (KK) has street markets, a fish market, jetty, and a little further out between the town and the airport is a lovely beach and Prince Philip Park. We spent a day here and saw more birds than at the Kinabalu Park.

After deep consideration for about 30 seconds we decided to blow the budget once more and take some trips on the basis that we are unlikely to visit Borneo again so should see everything we can. Online searches proved fruitless or confusing as information on transport is difficult to pin down so eventually we used an agent who was excellent. She linked everything together and gave us precise instructions, such as, “Go to window 3 with 80 ringits and they will give you the tickets”, and “Ask the bus driver to set you down at the Sepilok roundabout and someone will come to collect you”. More amazingly they did – it all worked like clockwork. There were 3 areas we wanted to visit, Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and Jungle resort, the Kinabatangan River and the diving area of Sipadan/Mabul Islands. There is also Turtle Island where you can see the turtles laying eggs and then help the hatchlings down to the sea, but we gave that a miss as we have seen turtles lay eggs in Tobago.

At Sepilok we did a night walk in the jungle and watched flying squirrels climb to the top of gigantic trees and then jump off, open their membranes like kites, and glide down slowly travelling up to 100 metres across the top of the jungle. Our guide showed us spiders, snakes, frogs, birds sleeping on trees and a mouse deer, a deer which is only about 12 inches tall. We had our leech socks on, right up over our knees so felt secure but on returning to our room I saw blood all over Jim's thigh. One had managed to either get through or bite through his trousers. It had disappeared, probably fallen off in a bloated stupor after drinking lots of his blood. They anaesthetize when they bite so the victim feels nothing and they use an anticoagulant so the blood flows freely. They are like tiny threads when hungry but turn into big slugs when full! On another night walk I had one on my sleeve but managed to dislodge it before it took hold. I really do not like leeches!

We were lucky to see orang utans on the reserve and in the wild. On our river trips we saw orang utans, long-tailed macaques, pig tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys, silver leaf monkeys with an albino baby as well as numerous birds, (including crested serpent eagle, a pair of storm storks, horn bills, pied, and wrinkle, stork billed kingfisher, purple heron, black backed kingfisher, dollar bird, blue eared kingfisher, white crowned shama, blue tailed and blue throated bee eaters, darters, white bellied eagle, lesser fish eagle, Brahminy kites, lesser adjutant and a blue heron).

On walks we saw a large scorpion, lots of spiders, 3 snakes, tree and jungle frogs, a civet cat in a tree and pygmy elephant footprints.

Although the accommodation was simple at Sepilok and Kinabatangan, and designed to have minimal impact on the environment, it was clean and comfortable with friendly and helpful staff. We took a bus from there to Semporna, the coastal town which provides access to the dive sites off the islands nearby, which include Mabul, and the divers' Mecca of Sipadan.

We came down to earth with a bump. To say Semporna is a dump is an insult to the many organised and efficient council dumps that we have experienced in England. If it was not for the diving, no visitors would ever set foot here. There is rubbish everywhere, including the sea (and it drifts out for a couple of miles), and great holes 2 to 3 feet deep in the pavement. There are villages built on stilts over the sea. The scenery is stunning but it is necessary to be short sighted to appreciate it. Good vision brings the rubbish into view, as well as the rats, especially on the tourist jetty where the otherwise attractive stilt hotels are located. Thankfully Jim saw a warning online, (from a man who slept in one of them and had a rat land on his head in the night) and whilst here we have heard from others who have found them in their rooms and we have seen them.

Our hostel is probably not much better but it is a little further away from the water. When we arrived they had difficulty finding our booking, then could find no record of the diving reservation. This was critical as only 120 divers per day are allowed to dive the sites of Sipadan and it is necessary to get a permit in advance. I had had to book a package including a river trip to get the Sipadan diving. It's impossible to beat the system and it's a way to make money, but at least it is protecting the area. Eventually it was sorted but it was an indication of the level of (dis) organisation at Global Backpackers Dive Centre. The river cruise proved enjoyable especially watching fruit bats rise up in hundreds from a small island at sunset and head off for their breakfasts in different directions. We also saw fireflies by the river.

The chaos at Global Diving became more evident the next day when I and a young couple from Cardiff, Sarah and Matthew, met at 7am for our first day diving the Mabul island sites. After much waiting around and no sign of a dive master or dive equipment, a young woman arrived from another dive company and took us around to her office located at one end of the jetty. Our reception staff explained nothing to us, but evidently we had been “farmed out” to consolidate another company's boat for the day. Eventually we signed the usual disclaimer and were directed to wait on the jetty for a boat. It was about twice the size of a bath tub when it arrived – in fact I have been in larger jacuzzis! It was half full with boxes and belongings being ferried across to Mabul, including 6 very large identical paintings wrapped in string and 2 brass candlesticks taped together. We squeezed on board with the other 4 passengers and set off – for 20 seconds before the engine packed up. After some tinkering we were on our way again but broke down twice more, the last time in open sea which was unsettling. At one point my hat blew off in the wind and I turned to the boatman who signalled did I want to stop and pick it up. The look of horror on his and his companion's face at the thought of stopping and not starting again was enough for me to wave them on – it was a very cheap hat from KK. It was rough and we kept crashing down on the seat. I used my life jacket as a cushion but at one particularly hard thump a rather heavy lady fell through her plank seat. We were so closely packed luckily she could not fall far.

By 10am we arrived at Mabul and were met by the dive team there. From that second on everything changed. The dive masters, Tom, Nick and Albert (who is French so pronounced Albaire) are the most professional I have ever met. They introduced themselves, organized our equipment quickly, (of course we were late) and smoothly, gave superb briefings and took us off to dive. We did 3 dives in the day, an artificial reef dive, a wall, and finally a “muck” dive on sand. It was probably my best diving day ever. (Saw 3 types of frog fish, giant peacock tail shrimp, eels, stone fish, scorpion fish, various miniature shrimps, leaf fish, Mandarin fish and juvenile frog fish about 1" wide.)

Their passion for finding creatures to show us meant that I saw at least 30 things I had never seen before and would not have seen then but for their sharp eyes and friendly rivalry, as they vied with each other to find the tiniest and most unusual / ugly / beautiful things. I often say I think of a dive as a visit to another planet. Well, I can only say Mabul is the strangest planet in the universe! Matthew used his underwater camera and kindly shared his photographs so I can show a few things but many were too small for him to capture, such as pygmy lion fish and tiny cleaner shrimp. The fact that he managed to take so many good pictures when he had only completed 8 dives previously is really impressive.

We only broke down twice on the way back but after such a tremendous day, no-one cared. As we were late back we had to climb up onto the pier rather than the jetty. I couldn't believe what they were asking of us as it was a good 8 feet high without a ladder. Five people came to help, 3 supported the handrail to ensure it did not give way, and the other 2 hauled us up. A smooth disembarkation by Semporna standards.

By coincidence the Mabul dive outfit was attached to the accommodation Jim and I had pre-booked for 5 nights after Semporna as we thought we might rest and snorkel on the island. So I had chance to look it over. I saw the bedrooms, and the communal showers/toilets, and that was concerning, then I met up with a Danish brother and sister whom we had met previously in Sepilok. They were staying there and had received bites all over during the nights. They had changed rooms, had the rooms sprayed etc but were still being bitten in the night. I decided to report back to Jim in the expectation that we might cancel. We did and decided to escape from Semporna as soon as possible.

The next day I dived Sipadan but that was back with Global so again it was total disorganisation, confusion and lack of preparation and information. Also, we only had one dive master, for what should have been 7 divers, including 4 inexperienced ones. In fact 2 did not arrive as one was very ill ( staying at Mabul but had to be brought to the doctor here) so it was one to five by default.

Despite the problems the diving itself was amazing. It is no wonder it has such a reputation amongst divers. Sipadan Island is a huge rock outcrop which rises up more than 600 metres from the ocean floor and it is at the meeting point of different seas and currents so it can be quite tricky diving. That's another reason to ensure good ratios of experienced and inexperienced divers.

We dived 3 different sites and soon realised that around Sipadan everything is larger than elsewhere, the shoals are huge, the turtles too, and even common coral fish like Angel fish are giants. I saw an eagle ray that looked like a Manta in the distance because it was so big, until I saw the eagle shaped head and spots on it's back.

Because of the rock structure rising from the seabed all the sites are walls (like huge cliffs) which drop from just below the surface to 600 metres at the bottom. At the last site, Turtle Town as it is known locally, turtles were everywhere, tucked into mini caves, resting on ledges and free swimming, ranging in size from babies to some 5 or 6 feet long and 4 feet wide. There were almost as many sharks around, mainly white tips, and lots of yellow finned barracuda that were as big as sharks, 3 to 6 feet. The middle dive was the most challenging as we had to go around a corner where different currents meet. The current was strong but in different directions and at one point was coming down from the surface at an angle of 45 degrees. You can tell because fish swim into the current. To see them heading up to the surface like that is disconcerting. In other places they were swimming every which way in confusion. I knew how they felt.

The 2 days were wonderful and I am not sure whether I will ever dive again as anything else might be a disappointment.

We have just booked our bus ticket back to KK to escape from here, it all feels too unhealthy, and hopefully we will take some time to rest and relax. Jim has had some kind of bug for a couple of days so he needs recovery time somewhere comfortable, we both have a few bites and I have a number of bruises and scratches from diving and climbing over boats and jetties so we are going to a hostel by the beach in KK to heal and regain energy. Jim really disliked Semporna so is very happy to move on.


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