This morning’s 4am drive finished with a sunrise overlooking primary rainforest canopy that stretched for miles. An impressive sight at the best of times, but made all the more spectacular by the eerie clouds that linger swamp-like between the treetops. After some breakfast and a midday siesta we headed out for our final night drive where I got to spot one of Borneo’s endemic primates, the maroon langur.
Just before the light faded I also got the opportunity to spot my first orangutan of the trip. This curious baby orangutan was just about to be tucked into its nest for the night, but couldn’t help peering out to get a better look at us. Looking into its eyes as this little orange baby stared back, blinking down at me through sleepy eyes, was a truly wonderful experience. The rest of the evening was spent listening to the sound of the rainforest at night and continuing to spot many animals along the jungle trails.
Just next door you’ll find the Sun Bear Sanctuary, where you can see the world’s smallest species of bear. They’re clever creatures that keep the sanctuary staff on their toes. In order to rehabilitate them effectively, the staff need to come up with increasingly inventive methods of hiding food, in order for the bears to learn how they would forage for food in the wild. Take your time here as every now and then a bear will sit on its hind legs, stretch its nose high up into the air and sniff away to its hearts content. This will give you a good glimpse of what gives the sun bear its name – the golden ring of fur that sits on its chest.
After a pleasant boat journey from Sandakan to the Kinabatangan River, I arrived at my riverside lodge. It was tucked away in a secluded tributary in the Lower Kinabatangan, only accessible by boat, with bearded pigs snuffling in the mangroves; I felt ready to begin my river safari experience. On our first river outing we spotted a huge array of birds. Now, despite never thinking of myself as a twitcher, I have to say the birdlife of Borneo can’t help but capture your interest. From the flash of colour of a vibrant hummingbird, to the steady eyes of an eagle watching you pass or the sight of majestic hornbills flying overhead, the river is captivating for twitchers and non-twitchers alike.
Alongside the many birds, a brilliant variety of primates can be seen in the trees. The highlight of the Lower Kinabatangan however has to be the spectacular display the fireflies put on at night. When we say they light up like a Christmas tree, this really isn’t an exaggeration. Making your way along the dark and silent waters in search of a particular type of tree that fireflies like to congregate on, it’s not until you’re right in front of it that you really understand what all the fuss is about. Thousands of fireflies tranquilly blinking in the darkness will captivate you for an age.
An early-morning visit to an oxbow lake is highly recommended. Our boat perched among the lily pads while we tucked into a light breakfast, listening to the distinctive sound of silver leaf monkeys calling in the trees – a really lovely start to the day. Now, I’m a little bit fascinated by the intriguing and prehistoric king of the river: the crocodile. The previous day I’d seen a couple of tiddlers sliding into the water. Not to take anything away from those little chaps, but I was hoping to see something a little bit scarier.
While my guides were scanning the trees for monkeys, my eyes were drawn to the mud banks. My severe lack of 20/20 vision did not however stop me from spotting a beautiful 10ft croc basking on the low-tide mud. We crept closer and closer until our boat was almost on the banks with it, and there it sat for ages with its yellow eye trained on us as we gawked in amazement. Out of nowhere, with the speed of something that should have much longer legs, it ran full tilt at the water. Mere metres from the end of our boat, with a huge splash it was gone; returned to the murky depths of the brown waters below.
We then headed along the river to our next destination, Sukau. Here we took an afternoon cruise in an electric engine boat which is barely audible as you cruise along the tributaries. Not only does it make for a much more peaceful experience for you, but also for the wildlife. Here we were able to see an adult female orangutan making its way lazily through the trees in search of a spot to make its nest, as well as proboscis monkeys leaping from tree to tree and macaques being as playfully noisy as usual.
One thing to note is that while it would be great if they were able to use the electric engines the whole time, they are a lot slower than the motorised engines, therefore it’s necessary to switch between the two engines in order to cover the distance needed to get those great wildlife sightings that are right at your fingertips!
While very therapeutic, waking to the sound of monsoon rain has a tinge of disappointment as you know this means the morning boat safari will be postponed until the rain eases. Having said that, the beauty of monsoon rain in Borneo is that it doesn’t persist all day long like it does here in the UK. Once the rain eased off we were able to get out in the boat and I discovered that the rain is actually a handy tool for wildlife sightings. Yes, while it rains most of the wildlife hides away, however once it stops the wildlife makes the most of the break in rain and comes out into view.
In the afternoon we took a boat and a short car journey to Gomantong Cave. Entering the cave is not for the squeamish as your shoes will be getting friendly with the many cockroaches that scuttle about the floor. A technique that I found effective was to adopt a (not so) subtle Irish jig at any stationary moments within the cave. Please feel free to use this technique should the need arise. You’re welcome. The cave itself however is captivating and the bat exodus at dusk even more so. The sound of hundreds of thousands of wings draws your attention upwards as a swirling black mass streams across the sky.
As we were waiting for the exodus to begin something caught our eye. A large female orangutan came walking on all fours out of the bushes, across the grass just metres in front of us. It proceeded to climb onto the veranda of a derelict longhouse where it sat and watched us watching her. Being so close to an entirely wild creature that shares 97% of its DNA with humans is a bizarrely intimate experience. Memories of those 90 minutes spent under that relaxed and knowing gaze is one that I will cherish always.
After another long and bumpy journey to Tabin Wildlife Reserve, I got to visit my first mud volcano. The muddy trek up to the volcano is a high-risk one. Keeping your wits about you is crucial on this trek as disaster could strike at any moment. Many a welly boot has been claimed by the mud of these trails. Fear not – pop it back on your foot and squelch onwards! The watchtower at the volcano is a great place to observe the wildlife that like to take in the minerals the volcano provides. This was also the place I got to see my first rhinoceros hornbill, and what a magnificent sight it was.
The resort at Tabin is not only a great place to see wildlife while trekking and during the night drive, but right from your front door as well! I was lucky enough to see a family of large otters making their way down the river, fish in mouth, and they even have gibbons that swing their way through the resort at times.
Today we made our way to Danum Valley where I spent the afternoon trekking with my guide among the primary rainforest. Coffin Cliff gives a fascinating insight into the cultural history of this rainforest and a good rest point en route to the highlights of the trek. Once you’ve hauled yourself up the final section of the hill, the viewpoint is well worth the perspiration it took to get there. You can look down to the river that winds around the resort and across the seemingly endless canopy. The waterfalls on the way back are not only picturesque but offer a refreshing break if you fancy a dip, particularly the jacuzzi pools is you’re willing to scramble up to the first tier.
The evening’s night drive brought various deer, civets and my particular favourites of this drive, frogs. From the racket they make, you can’t deny they’re there, but unless you have a guide with you, spotting them is harder than you’d think. I saw frogs big and small, but was particularly excited to see Wallace’s flying flog… unfortunately, it wasn’t in flight, but nonetheless, it was still the most interesting amphibian I’ve ever seen.
An early start this morning as we made our way to the canopy walkway. A great opportunity to get up in the trees where the wildlife spends most of its time, allowing you to see the world from their view. While we weren’t lucky enough to see much wildlife this morning, there was a used orangutan nest right beside the walkway which goes to show how lucky some visitors can be!
In the late afternoon we donned our head torches and made our way into the fading light. Our guide got word on his radio that there were a family of maroon langurs nearby, so of course we took a slight detour. And I’m glad we did as I was able to see a mother with its baby clinging to its back, their peculiar little faces peering down at us from high in their tree.
Water scorpions and a tarantula were new additions to my wildlife sightings on this trip. However, the highlight of the day’s safari had to be the leech that gave me the stylish look of an underdeveloped unicorn. Clearly my forehead presented the most appetising option on this evening’s buffet. I must add that this was my first and only leech of the entire trip, which I took as a personal affront to the tastiness of my blood.
Another early morning, another long journey, this time to an area known as Sabah’s Lost World: the Maliau Basin. This is a huge expanse of rainforest covering an impressive crater that was only discovered in 1947 by a pilot who survived a near miss with the crater rim. The basin has only been explored since the 1980s and is a great place for trekkers who want that remote, untouched, adventurous experience.
We start our journey in the basin at the Maliau Basin Study Centre where you can get some good food and a decent night’s sleep before entering the jungle. Keep your eyes peeled for hungry sun bears that go in search for food wherever they can smell it. Despite the bars on the kitchen windows and doors, these inquisitive little bears try their hardest to get at the food inside. We woke in the morning to muddy paw prints all over the walkways outside our dorm (good job I left my snacks in the kitchen!), an upturned bin and litter scattered across the dining area. Who didn’t lock the door properly…? It wasn’t me!
After a short drive to Agathis Camp, we don leech socks, sling our supplies on our back and make our way into the jungle. The 9km trek to our camp seemed relatively tame to begin with. However, once the relentless incline begins, the humidity is no longer your friend and your fitness is certainly tested. A steep descent to Ginseng Camp gave us our first taste of the type of trekking tomorrow will bring. Holding on to tree roots, we scrambled down, making our way over the swing bridge that sits above Ginseng Falls before we arrived at our camp for the night.
After a well-earned nap we descended 700m to the waterfall, where a dip in the pool is a must after a long, sweaty trek and one that is highly advised if you want to remove the feeling of being a salty crustacean for the briefest of moments during your time in the basin. The open-sided wooden shelter that housed our bunkbeds is the perfect way to have a comfortable night’s sleep while still being able to take in the sounds of the jungle as you drift off to sleep.
Today’s trek was going to be a tough one. A couple of kilometres of gradually steeper gradient before a sharp 3km descent to the falls. You may think, “well that’s easy, you’re going downhill”. To start with, I would have agreed. It serves as a very welcome respite from slogging uphill. However, those wooden ladders you scuttled down, trees you clung to, roots you scrambled down and ropes that helped you descend those vertical drops all have to be done in reverse. Well, they do if you’re staying at the same camp as you did last night anyway.
Take your time and appreciate the rest at Maliau Falls where you can swim, or simply admire the view of the stunning three-tiered falls. Then it’s 3km of hauling yourself uphill using anything that can assist you. Ropes, trees, ladders… The view you get at points along the way is well worth the exhaustion, as you get to look out across the carpet of trees that cover the basin and over to the other edge of the rim that curves around for miles.
Due to the underexplored nature of the basin, the wildlife is not habituated to the sounds and smells of humans. Therefore, it is rare to see much wildlife during your time in the basin. Never seeing and only hearing the calls of gibbons, hornbills, great argus, deer and many more species makes you appreciate just how wild and remote this rainforest is. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was unlikely to see anything bigger than a termite during my trekking here, however the jungle likes to throw surprises at you when you least expect it.
I was trekking behind my guide, watching my feet, trying not to trip over and break myself (no vehicle access makes for lengthy casualty evacuations!) when my guide did the most spectacular jeté I’ve seen from a 5ft tall Malay. What he was leaping out of the way from was a royal tree snake, poised, head height in a branch. Its beautiful green and yellow stripes make even the most amateur photographer look like a pro! This rare snake was an absolute treat to see and my guides were just as, if not more, excited that I was too see it. A real highlight of my time in the Maliau Basin.
This morning we said goodbye to our camp and made the 9km trek back to the edge of the basin. After a short drive back to the Maliau Basin Study Centre to get out of the sweaty clothes we’d lived in for the last four days, we began the long journey to Kota Kinabalu. Arriving in the evening I just about had time to dash out to explore the night market and grab a bite to eat. I do love a good market. Not necessarily always for the shopping element, but for the food, the people and the lively buzz that comes with any market, wherever you are in the world. Seafood is in abundance at Kota Kinabalu’s night market, as well as a variety of barbequed meats and delicious sweet snacks.
An early start as I am driven to Kinabalu National Park where I will begin my climb of Mount Kinabalu. I meet my guide and after registering for the trek we head through the gate to begin scaling the mountain. Having spent the previous four days trekking through some of Borneo’s toughest rainforest in the Maliau Basin, starting a mountain climb certainly tested the thighs! We took it slow and steady, and those “sturdy” thighs got us to our mountain hut accommodation by early afternoon.
One of the highlights along the way were some of the largest pitcher plants that I’d seen during my time in Borneo. These incredible plants modify their leaves to resemble the shape of a jug, allowing them to trap insects inside in order to feed. A fascinating demonstration of evolution whether you are interested in plants or not. The view from your accommodation is truly spectacular. The hostel’s balcony faces west and as the sun sets in the most beautiful shades of pink and orange, you feel like you’re sat right on top of the clouds. After a hearty dinner, it’s to bed around 7pm in preparation for an early start the following day.
The day commenced with a biblically early start at 2:30am. A light breakfast was wolfed down before I was met by my guide to begin the summit trek at 3am. Head torches on, first out the door, we set off in the dark. The rain caught us off-guard and we got drenched before we had a chance to put our waterproofs on, and as the rain set in, there was the potential that we may have needed to turn back in case the weather became too treacherous. However, it eased off and we continued our ascent. We had a brief spell where the clouds parted, and the moonlight cast a silver glow across the mountain peak. I was able to look back down the mountain and see a procession of head torches snaking their way up in the darkness far below.
As we got closer to the peak not only did the rain start up again, but the wind had clearly decided it had felt left out! Therefore, we reached the 4,095m peak at 5:30am and were not prepared to wait with chattering teeth and frozen fingers for a further half an hour for the sunrise. So, we headed down and grabbed a more substantial breakfast at the mountain hut before continuing downward. On our descent back to the base the clouds opened up and we were treated to a gorgeous sunrise and a view that stretched across the towns, villages, forests and the Crocker Mountain Range. From the base I made the journey back to Kota Kinabalu where I swapped cars for boats as I headed across the water to Gaya Island.
This morning I was able to grab an hour’s snorkelling among the reefs in the small bay at Bunga Raya. A colourful array of fish and stingrays darted around me and I got to see some uniquely patterned and colourful giant clams, which was a real delight. An hour was nowhere near long enough for me, I could have spent all day in those turquoise waters in the hopes of seeing the bay’s resident turtle. After a brief visit to another resort on the island I was whisked back to the mainland where we journeyed to Kuala Pinya Jetty before taking a further boat to Pulau Tiga. An island with only one villa resort, golden sands and azure waters to relax and enjoy. It was then back to Gaya Island for my final night in Borneo.
This morning was jam-packed visiting some of the other great resorts on the island as well as the Marine Ecology Research Centre. The centre does a great job at not only educating visitors on marine life and the struggles it faces, but also conservation work to restore coral reefs and giant clam populations which guests can get involved with too. From here I made my way back to the mainland and onward to the airport. Borneo has so much to offer and my visit this time gave me the chance to see all that Sabah could offer. I left having seen some spectacular wildlife and with some wonderful memories that will stay with me for a long time to come.
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