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Published: April 15th 2006
In the wild these animals are only found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
We're in Kota Kinabalu at the mo - KK is the capital of Sabah, Sabah being one of the two states that comprise Malaysian Borneo (the other is Sarawak which is where we're heading next). I've been in Borneo for a little over two weeks and am slowlyyyyy getting used to the heat and humidity... or maybe it just feels that way having spent a few days on a beach where the toughest decision was when to go for a swim!! Apparently it's supposed to be the end of the rainy season here at the mo.... well, I'd hate to be here when it was the middle of the rainy season! We seem to be having a downpour every afternoon at the mo but it's actually a nice relief from the humidity. Anyway here's how I ended up in KK....
I'd spent the morning of my last day in Singapore working out how to get over the border to Johor Bahru in Malaysia to catch my cheapy cheap 10.20am Air Asia flight to Sandakan in Sabah, which is where I was due to meet the girls. Whilst only a few 10's of miles in actual distance it required 2 tubes,
... and these aren't the biggest ones! Males can be up to 100kg, 1.5m tall and have an arm span of 3m. Females are smaller..
4 buses and 2 sets of immigration.... but I figured the hassle was was worth the 100GBP it would save compared to flying direct from Singapore. I figured 2.5 hours would be long enough... I could leave at 7am, still get the free breakfast provided at the hostel and be in Sandakan for lunch. Well, needless to say it was almost the most expensive "free" breakfast that I've had!! Silly me hadn't factored in that half the world would be in the queue at Singapore passport control... and the other half would be at Malaysian immigration. And then there was the 'express' airport bus I had to get once I'd reached the bus startion in Johor Barhu. There was nothing express about this bus.... @ 5 mins after leaving the bus station we stopped for @ 10 mins for petrol and the driver to have a chat with some mates, then he drove sooooo slowly we were being overtaken by mopeds.... by about 9.50 I'd given up hope of making my flight, was cursing myself for not having taken a taxi from the bus station and was flicking through my LP trying to work out how else I could get
Orang-Utans build nests each night to sleep in
to Sandakan, given there was only one direct flight a day. Fortunately the 'you must check in 30 min before depaurture' rule wasn't being strictly applied at JB airport.... thanks to some help from a friendly Malaysian guy on the bus I checked in with less than 20 mins to go. Alas Sam and Katie who were due to fly from Kuala Lumpur weren't quite so lucky - whereas I nearly missed my flight, they did miss theirs!! But that's another story! So after a day of sitting around feeling like a billy-no-mates and not knowing what had happened to them, we all eventually met up in Sandakan!
There's not much in Sandakan itself but we'd chosen it as a good base for some of the trips we wanted to do. First up was Sepilok - home to an Orang-Utan rehabilitation centre. We decided to take the public bus rather than a tour to save pennies so duly set off in search of the blue bus #14 at the local bus station described in the LP... a few locals and two bus stations later we found the white #14 and were on our way! The Orang-Utans are fed twice
Escaping to eat alone...
... unlike the Macaques these are solitary animals
daily at 10am and 3pm - the early session is much better in terms of numbers seen but you have to contend with the huge number of tourists that also descend at this time. The Orang-Utans here are rescue animals, bought in when locals report seeing an orphaned baby or injured animal in the wild or perhaps seeing them being kept as pets in cages. The animals go though a long process of rehabilitation in the centre itself, being introduced to increasingly large enclosures before being released into the forest area of the centre which covers some 40sq km. They are deliberately fed a monotinous diet of bananas to encourage them to forage for other food in the forest and some are eventually released back into the wild. Whilst there we were lucky enough to see a mother with its baby clinging to its back, and a teenager that put on an acrobatic's display for all those watching! Longtailed macaques made sure the leftovers that the larger Orang-utans dropped or left behind didn't go to waste. The benefit of going by local bus meant we got to hang back after the hoards of camera clicking tour groups had gone -
These were much more social than the Orang-Utans... mostly we saw them in groups as often on the ground as in trees
definately worth it as we got to see some of the younger ones come in once the more dominant animals had had their feed.
The next day we went off to the Turtle Islands National Park - 3 islands where Green and Hawksbill turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. A conservation program here creates conditions that maximise the number of hatchings, and hatchlings that make it out to sea - a programme deemed necessary to counter the devastating effect that illegal collection and sale of eggs has had on population size. All the egg laying action happens at night... so having arrived mid morning we were forced to spend the day realxing on the beach and swimming in the sea ;0) After dinner we were told to stay in the main centre and await the call that the turtles had come ashore..... the latest any had started to come ashore was 6.30am so we were jumping for joy when the call came at 9.30pm! I haven't got any photo's of what we saw - understandably we were told not to use flash photography so I opted for just watching rather than testing my not so great mannual photographic
skills! First off these turtles are huge... the Green turtles we saw are the smaller of the two species that come here, nevertheless the 'average sized' one we watched lay its eggs was still over a metre long. They haul themselves up the beach and spend some 30mins digging a hole in which they then lie to lay their eggs - they later use their powerfull back legs to fill the hole and protect the deposited eggs. Well, that's the idea, what the turtle doesn't know is that the ranger has duly been swipping the eggs as they are layed and putting them in a bucket! The turtle we watched layed almost 100 eggs! The next stage of the conservation process is buring the eggs in a fenced off area where they are protected and can be monitored. We got to hold some of the babies that had hatched that night - they fit in the palm of your hand but their little legs are sooo powerfull... and they can still give you a little bite. They hatch at night, when the temperature has dropped and it is safe for the hatchlings to make the run for the sea.... or
in this case be scooped up by the warderns and deposited within a metre of the sea. Watching them being released from the basket and sprinting down the beach to the water was like the start of a race when the gun goes off and everyone is jostling for space but making a sprint for the same destination. It really was fantastic to watch.
After a nice 6am start (alas we were to get used to these...) we got back to the jetty in Sandakan were picked up for our next adventure - down to the Kinabatangan river and a place called Sukau. There are multiple priced options for seeing the wildlife of the Kinabatangan river, ranging from the cheapy cheap jungle camps to 5* lodges. Whilst on a budget (opted to have a fan room rather than air con ;0)) we decided against the jungle camp idea given the amount of rain we were still having... as I trugged through mud in welly boots over the next few days and then retreated to a nice clean guest house to clean up I was sooooo glad we'd made that choice! The guide we had was great and gave us
The perils of rainforest.....
..the evil leech that tried to suck my bloood
a running commentory of the km after km of palm plantations that we saw on the way to Sukau. Apparently there was a rat problem in the plantations... so they introduced venomous cobras and pythons to control them.... great idea unless you happen to be a plantation worker - by venomous I mean the killing type. So to counter the snake problem that was caused by the rat problem they then introduced birds of prey! We saw a black spitting cobra on the drive through... it wasn't particullay huge but its venom in your eye would put you in serious trouble. As to the plantation workers themselves.... well they are predominantly Indonesian - far cheaper to employ than Malaysians. There's a reasonable Indonesian and Phillipine population here, the former on the plantations and the later primarily working on the roads and in the markets in towns. They are given 5 year visas but suprising when the five years is up they 'disappear'... in the words of our guide everyone seeks a better life somewhere else... Indonesians and Phillipinoes go to Malayasia, Malaysians want to go to Singapore and Brunei, and those form Singapore want to got to the UK, and
everyone from the Uk.....
On the way to Sukau we stopped at the Gomantong caves.... one of a number of caves in Sabah and Sarawak where the swiftlets nests used in birds nest soup are harvetsted. Harvesting occurs 3 months of the year and lucikly for us one of those months was April. If it hadn't been then the cave wouldn't have been so amazing for me - just big and full of bird poo. It was seeing the guys doing the harvesting that really made it. In order to harvest the nests the workers use a series of not very sturdy looking rattan ladders and ropes manovered by colleagues at the base to end up being suspended at the end of a ladder maybe 60m up in the air, using a pole to reach across and grab a birds nest. Oh and being a cave it's pretty dark. It was amazing to watch but there's no way you'd get me going up. These black birdsnests retail for 1500RM a kilo - making it a very well paid job for these guys compared the other work available locally. The white birdsnests go for an even higher price.
Kinabatangan river is where we saw almost all of the wildlife that we've seen so far. Unfortunately we ended up sharing a boat with the two rudest most obnoxious Aussie families I've ever met (doesn't bode well for my plans to live in OZ........)... the 10 year old boy maybe had an excuse given his age but the parents! Their one redeeming feature was that they were avid bird watchers.... which meant they were very good at spotting things.... you just had to blot out the arrogance with which they followed on with 'Oh is just a xxx... seen loadssss of those....yawn...'. On arrival we had a 2.5 hour river cruise during which we saw long tailed macaques, probiscous monkeys, monitor lizards and needless to say lots of birds. That night I went for a night walk - Katie and Sam, perhaps wisely, opted out of this one. I was advised to swap my walking boots for welly boots.... within 5 mins and a 100m of trudging through sticky mud later I understood why! We were also told not to grab hold of any branches for support... they have nicely hidden poinsonous spiders, centipede's etc on them waiting to give
you a nasty bite as you fumble through the dark wishing you'd gone for the brighter more expensive head torch! Between those and the scorpians the threat of having my blood sucked by a leech was really nothing to worry about!
The next day we were lucky enought to see some Orang-Utans in the wild - another mum and her baby and one on its own.... along with lots more macaques and monkeys. The probiscous monkeys are known for their long noses....and I mean long. Alas they were to far away for my 3X zoom but a pair of binoculars here is an absolute must! We also got to have another go walking through the rainforest... with the requisite welly boots of course!! Alas we didn't get to see the pigmy elephant... muddy foot prints and dung were as close as we got :0(. Our guide was trying to convince us that if one charges at you then you should stand behind a tree... no matter how thin it is. If you're not behind a tree the elephant will charge trough you... whereas if you're behind a tree it'll still charge but change direction at the last minute.... hmmm
not sure if a) i believe that or b) I'd want to find out!! The only thing I did get up close and personal with was the leeches..... I caught one fast disappearing down my welly boot (thank god for leech proof socks!!), another trying to get through a hole in my trousers, and finally when I was back in the boat and thought I was safe the guy behind me found one on my back!!! Don't think I'm cut out for this jungle tregging thing...
From the Kinabatangan we went down to Lahad Datu (don't think they get many foreigners down there... especially not 3 girls out on their own. All three of us felt uncomfortable with the types of stares we we getting on the street so beat a hasty retreat to our not so nice hotel) and from there to the Danum Valley. Unfortnately the only place you can stay in the Danum VAlley as a tourist is a 5* resort... life is soooo tough ;0) Whilst here we did a number of short walks (this was a 5* resort after all.....) but despite our best efforts we didn't manage to see any wildlife. :0( Well...
A leaf insect.....
how did it get that name??
I don't think a rather tame "wild" pig really counts! The scenery was stunning tho and much more the typical rainforest that I'd expected to see. The valley is part of a logging concession set up to preserve 43sq km of rainforest.... amazing but 3 hours of driving past palm plantations to get there really made us appreciate how much had been logged.
Back in KK we weren't able to climb Mount Kinabalu as planned there wasn't enough accomodation at the half way up point and the earlest time we could do it was after Katie leaves. :0( We'd bumbed into a couple of girls a few times on our travels and met up with them for dinner last night after they'd finished the climbed..... and after hearing their tales I think we were all quite glad we couldn't do it!!! We went to the park though - again no big wildlife but saw some amazing coloured insects and fungi.... well I found it interesting!
Which brings me back to the last few days - sunbathing (well, shade bathing in my case!) on the beach of some islands around KK.. a little treat for not having climbed the
mountain!!! Unfortunately we loose Katie in a few days - she's off back to the UK (work is such a pain ;0)), but Sam and I are continuing on to Brunei and then Sarawak. For now tho we're all off for a bit more pampering.... facials and massages! Could get used to this backpacking lark!! ;0)
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