The Wild Life in Borneo

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
Trip End Apr 16, 2011

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sarawak,
Friday, November 19, 2010

After our uncomfortable ride from the mountain we hobbled into Sandakan on the north east coast of Borneo to begin what turned into a wildlife extravaganza. First stop was to see the Borneo's 'Men of the Forest, the orang-utans at Sempilok Rehabilitation Centre.  It was amazing seeing them close up, especially once the four million school-kids who were also visiting that day got bored and left at which point a family of three orang-utans appeared and obligingly posed for photos eating bananas.  We then got on another long bus to Semporna, further south down the coast, but this time thankfully we had seats.  The reason for heading to Semporna was to dive Sipadan island, one of the top 3 dive sites in the world.  We had a slight panic at this point though as some helpful people in our hostel happily informed us that we should have booked Sipadan months ago as there only 120 people allowed in each day. Being the organised souls that we are we, of course, hadn’t booked anything so were immensely relieved when we bumped into one of the dive masters we’d met in Ko Tao and managed to squeeze ourselves onto a trip to Sipadan in a few days time with his dive school, leaving us a few days to dive the other islands nearby.

We decided to stay on Mabul island which turned out to be an interesting choice.  The hostel we ended up in was built out on stilts over the water – which was necessary as the island itself was absolutely filthy and covered in rubbish.  Luckily most of the dive sites were rubbish-free but it wasn’t quite the idyllic tropical island it could be.  Being in the water diving was also much kinder on our still-recovering legs so we spent a lazy few days diving, snorkelling, sitting in hammocks, and trying to avoid one of the other guests who seemed unable to hold a conversation for more than 30 seconds without launching into a diatribe about how bad life had been to him or attempting to demonstrate that he knew best about everything.

Sipadan then turned out to be everything that Mabul wasn’t.  Noone is allowed to stay on the island (after some Philippine pirates kidnapped some tourists a few years ago!) so the only people who stay overnight are the soldiers posted to the Army base to guard tourists against any more pirates.  That must be a really tough posting.  As well as limiting the number of tourists allowed in each day plastic bags are banned on the islands and there is absolutely no rubbish, just white sand beaches and beautifully clear water.  The diving was also amazing; the island is basically a pinnacle on top of really deep coral cliffs and just a few meters from shore we found ourselves surrounded by schools of jack fish, turtles and, to Gordon’s absolute delight, sharks (he saw Jaws at an impressionable age).  It was definitely one of the best days’ diving we’ve done.

Having sampled the mountain highs and underwater highlights of Borneo we realised that there was one thing really missing from what we’d visited; jungle.  However this wasn’t entirely by accident and more because neither of us actually like jungle. For Sarah this was partly because of a particularly bad experience in the jungle in Bolivia tramping through the heat with a Best in Class hangover, but is also because:

1.       It’s basically a hot forest

2.       It’s muggy

3.       It’s full of insects

4.       You very rarely see much other than plants and bugs

But most of all

5.       There are leeches

Even knowing this though, we didn’t think our trip to Borneo would be complete without visiting some of the famous jungle so we decided to put aside our insect worries and booked a flight to Mulu National Park in Sarawak province.  After an amazing flight over most of Malaysian Borneo and Brunei we stepped off the plane into the hot, muggy air and steeled ourselves to cope with the heat.  We were thinking that all of our preconceptions were true when on our first day we booked to do a canopy walk and the only wildlife we spotted were two particularly nasty looking millipedes.

As well as acre sof protected jungle habitat Mulu is also famous for two things in particular; it has some of the biggest cave systems in the world and the millions of bats that live in them.  There is one cave where, according to the park leaflets ‘every night between 4 and 6pm, 3 million bats stream out of the cave entrance to go hunting‘.  Our guide books were a little more reticent about the spectacle saying that the bats didn’t appear every evening and you could often spend a frustrating hour staring at the cave opening without seeing a thing.  Feeling optimistic though we duly walked the 3km to the cave and set ourselves up to bat-spot.  We should have listened to the guide book.  After 2 hours there hadn’t been a sign of a bat and then the heavens opened; apparently the bats don’t like the rain so at that point we gave up and walked all the way back in the pouring rain, consoling ourselves that we’d try again tomorrow.

The cave systems of Mulu sounded altogether more our cup of tea and we managed to book one day of adventure caving and another caving-walk which turned out to be great.  For starters it was a little cooler in the caves or splashing up the rivers, there were a really nice bunch of people and it was great fun scrambling around the rocks and tunnels.  We’d also had occasional showers every day which meant it wasn’t nearly as hot as we thought it would be (at night it was almost cool) and, miracle of miracles, we’d only had 3 mosquito bites between us; altogether the jungle was looking up.  On our caving-walk however Sarah looked down at her leg and let out a shriek like a banshee; there were 2 leeches happily attaching themselves to her calves.  Yuck yuck yuck yuck.  If Sarah had a room 101 it wouldn’t have rats in it, there would be leeches.  Her screaming caused our slightly panicked guide to come running and then, to our surprise, draw out his huge machete.  Even Sarah thought this was slightly overkill for a couple of leeches but he then proceeded to just scrape them off.  After that the walking was a little more tense as every 5 minutes we stopped for leech checks.

We were also continually thwarted by the damn bats.  We went back twice more to try to see the supposedly daily exodus from the caves but both times the rain kept them inside.  On our final day we tried one last time and got very excited when the sun came out right on time.  All of us lunged for our cameras, and waited....and waited some more.  Finally just as we were about to give up one of the guide said he could see them coming and two little groups of bats deigned to leave the cave – and a bat hawk even came out to hunt them.  They were quite fun to watch but definitely not the 3 million that you can see some days.  Damn Nature.

Our other reason for heading to Mulu was that another of Borneo’s most famous walks is there, ‘The Pinnacles’.  It’s a 3 day walk in the jungle up to a viewpoint that looks over a series of limestone karsts rising up out of the jungle and by all accounts was almost as challenging as Mount Kinabalu.  The 3 day walk starts with a boat ride up the river, followed by a relatively short flat walk to the camp, a serious day’s hiking the following day and then the return trip to the boat.  We had gorgeous weather the first day and after a really nice boat ride and a brisk walk we arrived at camp to we meet the two others going up the same day as us; Swedish Andreas and his father Kirt.  Next day we woke up to a slightly cloudy but happily not raining sky (they cancel the hike if it’s raining in the morning) and despite the almost constant leech checks (we got a couple of the little b*ggers before they made it to our legs) we made good time on the walk up to the Pinnacles.  The path was literally straight up the mountain over tree roots and rocks with no flat sections at all!  On the way we finally saw some wildlife though as our guide spotted two hornbills and then some red-leaf monkeys.  The final 400 horizontal metres of the walk was both the most fun and the most strenuous as we found ourselves scrambling up a series of metal ladders and ropes.  It was worth the effort clambering up when we got to the top though and saw the views.  The karsts were similar to the Stone Forest in Kunming in China, but unlike China there weren’t bus loads of tourists and fluorescent lighting; instead we had the entire mountain to ourselves.  We treated ourselves to a very early lunch before heading back down which was actually harder work than going up as the footing was so slippery.  We felt pretty pleased with ourselves by the time we got back to camp at 2 but were totally put to shame by Kirt and Andreas who made it up in the same time as us and made it back down in one piece, despite the fact that Kirt was recovering from an illness and has very little vision in his left eye – seriously impressive!

We occasionally have moments on the trip when we’re somewhere really fun and the reality of how great this trip is hits us; we had one of those moments back at the camp we treated ourselves to a swim in the river and found ourselves on a rope swing over a river in the Borneo jungle on a Wednesday afternoon – and we only knew it was Wednesday because it’s the day of the week we take our malaria tablets!  The Pinnacles was cool but it certainly wasn’t the mountain, and while Mulu was fun we’ve now seen far too many caves, and we’re definitely done with jungles.
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eLP on

It snowed yesterday. Snow, London, November. First time in 17 (?) years.

Oh, the contrast to Borneo. My toes have fallen off.

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