Borneo Wildlife Safari Holiday

Tom Brown

22 Oct 2013

Borneo Wildlife holiday review

My first proper day in Borneo was an early start as we head out from Kuching to Bako National Park. It took about 40 minutes to get there by car. We paid the park fee before waiting for a boat driver to take us to the park entrance, then another 30 mins along the river and the coast, passing mangroves and some stunning scenery, and we arrived at a sign that says 'Bako National park'. From here we had to walk and the trails guide us to another park building. But before we get there, Rives (my guide) talks to one of his 'informants' as he calls them and says that the rarest monkey in the park is close by: the Silvered Leaf Monkey! 

Monkey Photography and Cultural visits in Sarawak

We spend some time watching them and trying to get a shot, but they are really camera shy, and I'm not the best photographer. I finally get a shot that I'm reasonably happy with and we continue along the trail where we are greeted by the Long Tailed Macaque, a monkey that Rives calls 'the terrorist' of the National Park. Why? Because they are the ones that will happily attack tourists to try and steel their food. Although, as a result, they are much less camera shy than the other monkeys. What a fun start to my Borneo safari!

We continue walking and we come across a male proboscis monkey and his harem in tow, again, these guys don't make the easiest of models and like to hide behind branches and leaves and anything to make life really difficult for an amateur photographer like me. I manage to get a couple of shots and we move on. We walk a little further and another 'informant' points us to tree where there is a flying lemur is sleeping. It doesn't move an inch the whole time that we are there. We keep walking and we come across a snake, a Pit Viper. This guy is lot more camera friendly as he curls up on a branch and stares into the camera. Only half a day in the park and we've seen quite a lot of wildlife…very lucky!

The afternoon brings culture and we head to Sarawak Cultural Village, a kind of museum that is made up of 7 longhouses, traditional buildings where the tribes of Sarawak live. They are reconstructions but they give an indication of the way these people live and have lived over the years. I'm hoping that tonight's stay at a current Iban longhouse will be a little more authentic. The afternoon is finished off with a show in an indoor theatre which at the time i was incredibly thankful for, the air conditioning was like a dream come true! Then, 40 minutes of traditional dancing to round off my cultural experience before heading back to the hotel after a full day for some deserved catnapping.

Sarawak Continues

Picking up from day 3 which began with another early start – something of a recurring theme. There was me thinking late night drinking, relaxing and leisurely lie-ins…how wrong I was! So I'm picked up from my hotel at around 7.30am as we were heading to Batang-Ai for my 'home-stay' at a traditional longhouse. After about 45 mins to an hour, we pull into Semengoh Wildlife Centre. Like Sepilok, where we have been sending clients since the very beginning, it's an Orang-utan Sanctuary that takes in orphaned orang-utans that have been kept as pets or there mothers have been killed through hunting, deforestation etc. Here they rehabilitate them to the point that they can reintroduce them back into the wild. It is a long and arduous process that takes many years. In the beginning they are given food with the hope that over time they will adapt to living in the wild and no longer need the handouts. There are 2 feeding times, the first at 10am and the second at 3pm, and there are platforms with ropes and a viewing area built for the tourists so that they can watch them and be a camera happy as they like. Me, like all the others, could hardly take my finger off the trigger and tried to take as many photos as possible. 

So we then headed off north in search of Iban territory. It was about another 4 hours till we arrived at a dam with a huge lake behind it. The next step was to cross the lake, head up river to where i would be spending the night. All of this was done on a longboat with a 50cc outboard motor hanging off the back; wobbly things that feel like they are going to capsize if you move around too much. We arrive and it's a 15 minute walk through the jungle before we get to the longhouse. Built on stilts, and housing fourteen families, it represents everything its name suggests. I was staying at the head honcho's house although he wasn't there during my stay. I dropped off my bags, said hello to the family and some of the locals who were all very intrigued by my arrival, and then Rives took me off for an hour to visit the farmlands. Their living comes from the land by growing rice and other crops and could be completely self sufficient if it came to it; each family with the own plot of land. We head back to the longhouse as it's time for dinner, something that I must admit I was a little worried about as I didn't know what to expect. I have done home stays before and you never know what you are going to get. We get back and we are greeted by a whole bunch of bare chested men around a fire, 2 pieces of bamboo cooking over it, and a barbecue with enough chicken and beef to feed a small army… well as it turns out just enough for those bare chested warriors…us! The next thing to come out is the rice wine, their version of Sake, all 40% of it and copious amounts of shots of it. Round and round we go till the bottle is finished and feeling pretty warmed up, not that we needed it. We head inside and all the locals come together and we eat on the floor of what I guess you would call the common area of the longhouse, the lobby I suppose. I find it tough being sat down on the floor but struggle on through, helped only by the steady flow of shots that seem to be coming my way. The food is really good, with a combination of the chicken and beef, wild ferns, veggies and rice, and a lovely chilli dip. We finish the food and then all sit around chatting, although only a couple speak English. 

It's been a long day and i need to hit the sack. I shower, brush my teeth and they throw a mattress down and i sleep in a room with 2 other guests who are from the university in Kuching and are going to head out into the jungle for a week to research wild orang-utans. I fall asleep in seconds . I think mainly aided by the amount of rice wine in my system. By this point I would definitely fail a breathalyser! 

We wake up early again, grab breakfast (scrambled eggs, rice and toast - not the most local but good all the same!) and we head back to Kuching. The same process but in reverse with a quick site visit to the Hilton Batang-Ai Longhouse Resort, the luxury version of what I did. The plan was to head straight back to Kuching but I pestered them to take me back to Semmengoh as I was determined to get some decent shots of my furry friends. It took some convincing but we decide to return and thankfully it paid off as 5 orang-utans came in for the feeding session including the local celebrity, 'Ritchie', the alpha male with fully grown face flaps. He was on the path when we were walking back for the feeding station and we weren't allowed to pass and then he moved to another feeding station. I managed to get some great shots of both Ritchie and some of his colleagues so it was definitely worth the visit. We continued back to Kuching, a quick visit to the office of Borneo Adventure to meet the staff and i was dropped off at my hotel. A quick shower, out for some food and it was time for me to crash!

Mulu

Yep, up early gain to be picked up for my flight to Mulu – the next leg. Rives and Joe drop me off at the airport, I check in, wait an hour or so and I'm on a small 50 seater propeller powered plane. We take off, I fall asleep and then I wake up and I look out the window and all I can see is jungle, miles and miles of it. I'm thinking, “so where do we land” but then a runway appears and we touch down. A tiny airport in the middle of the jungle, I pick up my bags, head out and Nelson is waiting for me. Nelson is my guide and is from one of the local tribes, his English is a little difficult to decipher but was good enough for communication purposes. He tells me that he'll be back to pick me up at 2pm so that we can visit Deer and Lang caves. I'm staying in the National Park accommodation. I have my own room, air conditioning, and an electric shower so I'm pretty happy.

After checking out the room, I grab some lunch at the canteen before Nelson turns up. We head off on a 3km walk through the rainforest to the caves. We head into Lang cave first which has a wide opening and motion sensor lighting guides us along out way. Stalactites and stalagmites rise and fall in front of us creating spectacular formations. We spend about 45 minutes weaving through the cave on the wooden walkways before circling round and then back the way we came. We return to a fork in the path where we had gone right to Lang cave and this time we take the left on our way to Deer cave, and before long we are presented with a huge cave opening which must have been 30-40 metres high and extremely impressive. There are much fewer stalagmites and 'tites in this cave but the sheer size of the cave makes for incredible viewing. The huge opening filters in huge amounts of daylight and thus illuminating the the cave naturally deep into the cave. 

As we walk in there is a really strong smell of ammonia from the bat droppings or guano as it it's known. It smelt so much it almost made my eyes water! Once we were a couple of hundred metres into the cave Nelson pulled out his headlight and shone it to the ceiling of the cave pointing to large black patches on the otherwise grey limestone. “Bats”,  he exclaims with a wry smile on his face, “thousands of them and at sundown they all fly out together!” We keep walking through this mammoth cavern and finally it becomes dark as the natural light fades. We continue walking and the cave lightens up once more but this time from in front of us, beams of sunlight pierce the darkness and before long we find an opening with a bright green rainforest in the distance. “Garden of Eden” says Nelson, again with the same wry smile. The cave is essentially a tunnel through a massive block of limestone, carved by a prehistoric river burrowing its way through the rock. A wonderful piece of natural engineering! 

We make a loop and start heading back. It takes about 25 mins to walk back. It's about 5.15 when we get back to where we started, a little further is a cleared area and there is a group of people sat on the benches, waiting and anticipating. It's the bat observation area. Nelson told me that at sundown the bats would all start to stream out of the Deer cave. The black patches would disperse as one and head out in a line for their nightly outing in search of insects. So we waited, and waited and waited…6pm rolls on and nothing… Nelson said that sometimes they don't come out. “It depends on the weather” he says. It had been bright sunshine all day but in the distance there was a thunder storm roaring. We wait some more and then one of the guides behind me shouts, “it's started!” and there are shouts of “where?” and people (including me) are running their eyes over the entrance to the cave and the cliffs above them and struggling to see anything. Then I see it, like a black cloud in the sky, but moving very quickly, circling around and around, and then onwards to the rainforest and a veritable buffet of insects. Meanwhile I see another creature which is much bigger than the bats but circling in similar areas. 'Bat hawks' I'm told, and all of a sudden they are dive-bombing through the clouds of bats trying to catch themselves dinner. 

We watch this spectacle for another 20 mins or so until it goes completely dark, then we walk back to the accommodation for a bit of food and another deserved night's sleep. All in all a very cool experience!

Kota Kinabalu and the Shangri La Rasa Ria

I’m back at the airport in the jungle in the middle of nowhere. I get to the airport and as soon as I’m under the roof, the sky opens up and we are reminded why these dense jungles are called rainforests. Luckily I’m dry and will stay that way at least until I have to head back out into the open before boarding small Maswings plane. The time comes and it’s still chucking it down but the lovely cabin crew come to greet us with umbrellas and make sure we keep as dry as possible. Difficult enough when the rain is horizontal.

The plane rears up, and we’re back down before we know it in Miri. The strangest system as we have to get off the plane go in the terminal, get our passports stamped and then get back on the plane. Up we go, and down we come and we’ve landed in Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Sabah. I pick up my back pack, walk out the airport to a sign with my name, and the big smiling face of my guide, Ben Duncan. ‘Welcome to Sabah!’ he grins, and he throws my stuff in the back of the vehicle and we off on our way to Rasa Ria. I’m to spend the night here and when arrive I start to consider changing my travel arrangements and just staying here for the next week or so. It’s a 5 Star resort with all the mod cons, wifi throughout the resort, and it’s seems that they have given me one of the honeymoon suites as as I’m on the top floor and I have a bath tub on my balcony and a stunning view of the sea. It’s a little like paradise!

I want to just chill and enjoy my room, which is almost the size of my apartment back in London, but I have a date with two young ladies from the sales team. They have decided to wine and dine and I thought it would be wrong to decline. I meet them downstairs and they give me a tour of the resort, before taking me to an outdoor bar to indulge me with a couple of cocktails a show of traditional dancing involving the kids staying at the resort. Quite amusing but a little hectic! They then whisked me off to their teppanyaki restaurant where I’m treated to sushi, steak, king prawns, egg fried rice and all washed down with a nice helping of sake. The food was delicious and June, one of the sales girls didn’t eat red meat so I got an extra portion of steak so I was extra happy. I thought that was going to be it, but June turns round and says ‘we should go and have desert at “coast”!’ That offer was difficult to refuse, so a vanilla crème brûlée was added the variety of delights that I had already eaten. By this point I’m feeling rather full and needing a lie down for a little while. The girls say their goodbyes, and head home and I make my way to my room for and another well-earned sleep. 

The next day, I wake up early as it’s another full day visiting sites tourist areas and hotels. Breakfast is dreamy and I can choose from a whole menu and buffet of scrumptious things to eat. The only omission, and the one I’m missing the most by now is bacon; as Muslims are highly prominent in Malaysian society pork is not found on the menu in any tourist locations. Instead they have something called beef bacon, which is basically thinly sliced beef and it doesn’t reach the loftly levels of the pork version. Some poached eggs on toast, beans, fruit and the best coffee I have had the chance to drink on the trip so far, and I head to the lobby to meet Ben and my driver Isaac.

Kinabalu National Park and Poring Hot Springs

We drive for about 3 hours to Kinabalu National Park named after the mountain that rises to over 4000 metres. Today there is an event called the ‘climbathon’ where crazy individuals come from all over the world to run up to the summit and back down again as fast as they can. The record is just over 3 hours and which seems impossible and in my humble opinion sounds too much like hard work! Just to give you an idea, our destination specialists recommend climbing Kinabalu on a 2 day itinerary where you overnight on the mountain itself. Kinabalu Park Hotel near the entrance to the National Park offers some lovely cabin style accommodation which is extremely comfortable and offers a few different levels of lodge. After inspecting some of the room and common areas it’s time to move on the their sister hotel, Poring Hot Springs Hotel and also part of the Sutera Sanctuary Lodges chain of hotels.

After a short drive we arrive to Poring Hot Springs and we proceed to inspect the hotel. A similar small lodge style accommodation awaits us. Cosy little units that are comfortable and look at lovely place to stay. After a walk around, and taking some snaps it’s time to head for some lunch. Chicken stir fry, squid stir fry, and veggie stir fry does the trick for Ben, Isaac and I. Ben doesn’t eat the squid as he tells me he is allergic to seafood and that his head would swell up to the size of a basketball if he ate it. I trust him and would rather not be witness to that. After lunch we check out the hot springs which I must admit were a little weird. I was expecting some natural rock pools where geothermal energy heats the water giving it therapeutic powers. There was one pool like this, but instead the water from there is diverted through pipes to a series of baths with taps. I think I was expecting something a little more exotic. 

After the hot springs we take a walk to a local before heading of a little further to Sabah Tea Plantation where we are spend the evening. This famous Tea Plantation exports tea around the world and it found in a beautiful setting. With Mount Kinabalu as its backdrop and fields of tea it is a beautiful setting. Accommodations are small cottages with 4 apartment style units. It was a good place to sit on the sofa and put my feet up and read my book!

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