Adventures in Borneo

Trip Start Aug 22, 2005
Trip End Jul 17, 2006

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Any dreams I had of Sabah being an undeveloped wilderness were quickly dispelled on witnessing the vast palm oil plantations and industrial mills which have taken over much of the landscape and the big trucks which constantly cart the product back and forth, and also on discovering that I could get a pint of Guinness for about 4 quid in Kota Kinabalu! However, if you are able to ignore all this, Sabah can truly be a land of adventure. I came here with three activities in mind, all involving natural wonders, and was not disappointed by any of them. Arriving in KK, it was good to be reunited with Eve et Marie, my French-Canadian friends from Laos.

Our first destination was Uncle Tan's Jungle Camp, on the banks of the Sungai Kinabatangan. Human encroachment and development in the area, particularly the afore-mentioned palm oil plantations, has reduced the jungle to just nine small pockets along the river and this diminution of habitat has resulted in the highest concentration of wildlife in SE Asia. This is great for nature tourists, but the fact that some species are unable to move freely from pocket to pocket has led to inbreeding and a consequent reduction in chances of survival. This is conspicuously the case with orang-utangs who, unlike birds, require the uninterrupted presence of trees to move steadily from nest to nest and find mates. When larger wildlife such as elephants try to make the move to a new pocket, this can result in large scale destruction of plantation-owners' property and source of income, with their answer being to simply shoot the elephants. Attempts are being made to create a "corridor of life" along the river, a project which involves plantation-owners ceding a belt of their land along the riverbank and replanting trees. However, progress is slow and often not well thought out - much effort has gone into planting trees but not enough into collecting new seedlings. Uncle Tan's encourages its guests to help with this latter process.

Before setting out for the camp we visited Sepilok Orang-Utang Sanctuary to learn a bit about the plight of the orang-utang and to view its residents in the process of rehabilitation come down from the jungle for feeding time. The sanctuary does excellent work, taking in young orang-utangs found abandoned or being kept illegally as pets after their mothers have been killed by poachers. The centre first checks their health and then begins the long process of preparing them for a return to the wild.

The boat ride down the river to the jumping-off point for the jungle camp was a safari in itself, and we spotted monitor lizards, proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, hornbills and stork-billed kingfishers (otherwise know as kookaburras). Accomodation in the jungle was very basic, with mosquito-net covered matresses on the floor of wooden huts with wire mesh doors and windows. It felt like we were in a zoo and when the generator was switched off at night we were visited by all kinds of nocturnal animals including owls and civet cats.

During our time in the jungle we saw all manner of creatures great and small, and I particularly enjoyed donning a pair of wellies for the night walk through the mud and standing knee-deep in a swamp photographing spiders and rare frogs. But the real highlight had to be sighting a dominant male orang-utang (recognisable by his pronounced cheek-pads) making a nest for the night right next to the river. There are probably only a handful of such males, aged about 30-40, in this particular pocket of jungle and observing the excitability of the otherwise unflappable guides made us realise that we were witnessing a rare and special treat. And so it was hardly surprising that none of us complained when we were woken at 5.30 the next morning to see the big fella wake up, stretch, have his breakfast and head off into the jungle in search of a mate. You might be interested to know that orang-utangs are only found in Sumatera and Malaysian Borneo (the latter identifiable by their darker hair), whilst proboscis monkey are endemic to this area. I especially loved seeing a dominant male proboscis monkey with his bulbous nose and pot-belly - too far away for a good photo I'm afraid so you'll just have to take my word that he was a sight to behold! Other sightings included red leaf and silver leaf monkeys, oriental darters and a juvenile wolf spider.

After a much needed shower back at the Gum Gum ops base we headed straight to Kinabalu National Park to get a good night's sleep in preparation for the climbing Mount Kinabalu, which at 4095m is the highest mountian in Se Asia. The return hike was 21km, and an imposing sign at the start of the trail informs you that the record time for up and back down again is 2hr41min for men (Mexican), and 3hr13min for women (Czech). It took us 3hrs just to get to our mountain hut at Laban Rata, the rest stop before attempting the pre-dawn climb. Up at 2.30am, I abused the "light breakfast buffet" in preparation for the gruelling last 2.5km, parts of which you had to haul yourself up using a rope. I decided to get it over with as quickly as possible, overtaking those who had set out an hour before me and almost passing out due to lack of oxygen on a few occasions. It took me an hour and a half to summit, at 4.35am, which meant that I had a long wait for sunrise. My smugness at being one of the top five to reach the summit was short-lived when you consider that the temperature was approaching freezing and I was wearing shorts! On the other hand, it was good to enjoy some solitude up there before the peak was swamped with other climbers over the course of the next hour. The sunrise was impressive, being as we were on top of the world (or this part of it at least), and on the descent it was nice to appreciate the views down on the valley across the granite plateau in the first light of day. Oh, and it was pretty good to have some oxygen too.

Finally, my Borneo adventure took me to Semporna, a scruffy town on the east coast of Sabah popular as a jumping-off point for Pulau Sipadan, one of the top dive destinations in the world. A big thumbs-up from Jacques Cousteau has ensured Sipadan its legendary status, and every diver I had met so far found it difficult to hide their jealousy when I told them I was planning to dive there. It did not disappoint.

Sipadan is an oceanic island, only a small part of which is visible above the surface, and was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct undersea volcano, which plunges 600m to the seabed. The geographic position of Sipadan puts it in the centre of the richest marine habitat in the world, the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin. Sipadan is well known for its unusually large numbers of green and hawksbill turtles which gather there to mate and nest. Everywhere I looked they were there, munching on the sponges and algae, or lazing on the wall ledges. The thing that really struck me though was just how big the fish have grown here, probably due to fishing being prohibited in the national park. At "Barracuda Point" we found ourselves surrounded by a spiralling vortex of barracuda, so large that the sunlight was actually clouded out. At "South Point" there were scores of reef sharks, a pair of huge trevally fighting (or mating?) and a rare sighting of an eagle ray out in the blue. The diving is mostly exhilarating wall-dives, plunging down to what seems like infinity, and at South Point it was difficult to resist the temptation to exceed the maximum depth when Pallav and I spotted a school of whitetip sharks and who knows, maybe some hammerheads, down at about 50m. To mix it up a bit, the third dive of each day was at Mabul, renowned for its "macro life" (confusingly meaning small stuff). We saw a host of weird and wonderful critters, including colourful nudibranches, blue boxer shrimp, porcelin crabs, crocodile fish, leaf scorponfish and a fugly frogfish, which apparently has the fastest lethal strike in the natural world.
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