John and Jessie Borneo trip report

Jessica Tiffin and John Yerbury

17 Nov 2015

John - Day 1, Labuk Bay

After a long 18 hour journey across 8 time zones, we landed at 1.15pm feeling tired to say the least, but the lack of sleep combined with jet lag gave a sort of delirious magical feeling to our immediate excursion to the proboscis monkey sanctuary at Labuk Bay.

As we drew close, it was a bit alarming to see the close proximity of palm oil plantations which seemingly surrounded the sanctuary. This is a sight though, as sad as it is, that one will grow used to travelling around Borneo. Labuk Bay itself, although a sanctuary, consists of only 500 acres. This isn't nearly enough space for proboscis monkeys to survive in the wild, hence the feeding platforms. It does offer however a close and very personal experience with these bizarre yet very entertaining primates. The only rule is not to touch the wildlife, so you can get extremely close to the proboscis monkeys, though it’s would be worth keeping an eye on the larger males as they are prone to sudden and aggressive charges to show the other males their prowess. The males also seem to be popping Viagra, sporting constant erections which I can only assume is to show off their male vitality and promiscuity to other males and of course the ladies. One male even became a bit too enthused with displaying his genitals causing only laughter from any humans observing him.

Along with the proboscis monkeys were a group of macaques that join them at feeding time; far calmer and generally avoiding the rambunctious large males busy showing off. Overall it was a genuinely pleasurable experience and although the feeding platforms and walkways gave the site a slight feeling of being in a zoo, the hilarious behaviour displayed by the primates made it very worthwhile. As we were exiting the sanctuary we were also treated to see a troop of pig tailed macaques, the baboons of Borneo, and soon after a group of Langurs or silver leaf monkeys which had some very cute but extremely conspicuous bright orange infants.

Afterwards we headed to My Nature Resort; our home for the night. This is a brand new accommodation which shows a lot of promise for the future. Its main attraction and unique selling point is the almost guarantee of seeing a flying squirrel which nests in a tree next to the restaurant. Being nocturnal, this animal is extremely rare to see in the wild and the one you see at My Nature Resort has a preferred route to start its nightly rummaging at sunset. A route of which the first flight or glide is right in front of the viewing platform, providing an excellent viewing of the creature. A guide then took me on a quick nature night excursion along their boardwalks running through the nearby jungle. Unfortunately, I didn't see much, which is the way of wildlife viewing sometimes, but I did see a few black widow spiders and their enormous webs which seemed a little gratuitous for their size. On my return I had an excellent supper and then immediately crashed into bed, desperate to make up for my sleep deficit over the last couple of days.

Jessie - Day 2, Sepilok / Kinabatangan River

I woke with surprise that I’d slept until my 6am alarm despite the 8 hour time difference. As soon as I’d regained enough consciousness to remember where I was, I desperately prised my eyelids open and tried to animate myself as quickly as possible. Bounding over to the double doors that led onto the balcony and swinging them open, I was blinded by a kaleidoscope of shimmering green jungle reflecting off the lake that it framed, and a cacophony of early morning insect noises that exacerbated the dreamy haze.

Still bamboozled by the intense greenery that surrounded us as we ate our breakfast of tropical fruit next to the lake; I was extra excited today as we were not only due to visit the orangutan rehabilitation centre to for a chance to see the orange furry dudes up close, but I was going to encounter another species of my very favourite ursine animal - the Bornean Sun Bear.

But first the orangutans! Man of the forest and the main attraction when it comes to visiting Borneo.

The scheduled morning feeding is at 10am, but there is a new area to visit first; the outdoor nursery. After the orangutans are rescued and have been through the clinic for a health check, if they are young they go first to an indoor nursery to learn basic natural behaviours and be introduced to other orangutans. If they are a bit older they go straight to the outdoor nursery, which is an area of ropes and platforms for them to explore, with indoor viewing decks that have one way glass so that they don't see any of our ugly mugs staring at them and putting them off their playtime! It was truly heart-warming to watch three juveniles bundle on top of each other, wrestling and rolling about with toes in each other mouths, and then darting off to swing in cartwheel fashion, foot hand foot, across a long stretch of rope chasing each other. The feeding at the main platform brought more mature chaps, loping slowly down and reaching like expectant children into a basket of goodies as we leant over the wooden bannister to capture it on film. Cheeky macaque monkeys skirted around the edge in an opportunistic dance to catch stray papaya debris.

Now to the wondrous sun bears! We met up with one of our Natural World Heroes, Mr. Wong, who set up the Sun Bear Conservation Centre after discovering how endangered and mistreated they were, and how little people knew about their plight. With evident passion and drive he showed us around the centre, stopping every now and then to jump into a group of bear gazers and explain something or tell a story about the each of his beloved creatures that ambled by in the scrub below. He'd shout in glee as he spotted one climbing down a tree, a round, dark, pooh-bear-esque creature snuffling for honey. The Bornean sun bear is 3 times smaller than its mainland cousins, looking more like a koala, with little piggy eyes and that beautiful golden crescent against soft mole-like fur as it sits up on its hind legs for a tummy scratch, before getting back to a pigeon-toed exploration of the undergrowth.

Time was of the essence so we were soon whisked off to Sandakan jetty, in the middle of Sim Sim water village; a whole village built on stilts. We boarded a comfortable speedboat and shot off into the Sulu Sea; the wind in my hair a welcome respite from the tropical heat. After 45 mins of skirting the coast we entered the mouth of the mighty Kinabatangan River, an area intensely rich in wildlife, colour and movement.

Within hours we had come across a silver leaf monkey with its bright orange baby clinging to its chest, proboscis monkeys bouncing from branch to branch as they show off to each other, a vibrant rainbow bodied kingfisher, a couple of pure white herons, and come night fall; a huge flying fox darting across the moon, followed by the orange glint of a crocodiles eyes flashing at us as it glided by our boat! My highlight, however, was during dusk, as we watched a couple of wild orangutans bedding down for the night. I found it highly comical as I anthropomorphised this huge sleepy male, who after gorging on the mangos that surrounded him, sat perched in the top of his buffet-cum-bedroom, bending the surrounding branches inwards to form a nest. In one last over-fed galumphing effort he took one look at us, reached up high to big leafy branch and wrenched it down in front of him - figuratively pulling the duvet over his head - and slumped into a motionless lump - Good night!

Jessie - Day 3, Pitas Oxbow Lake / Menanggul River

This morning we were due for an early sunrise river cruise, followed by breakfast on the 'jungle platform'. However, it being the middle of the rainy season, the heavens decided to open at some point in the middle of the night and didn't stop all day. Big cracks of thunder and huge volumes of water cascading all around us, the thick walls of green shaking and shuddering like a mosh pit at a really good gig! I can certainly see why this area of the world is at such an extreme end of the life-giving spectrum compared to my visits to the Arctic. There you find just two plant species struggling to survive in a landscape pretty devoid of simple life-giving nutrients such as light, water (in liquid form!) and warmth. Here, its almost sarcastic how much of all three of these ingredients are thrown at the earth. Talk about over-egging the custard! It's an overflowing, oozing, exaggerated cacophony of vitality and life!

We did manage a soggy late morning cruise which revealed some lovely birdlife such as a brahminy kite, a Wallace's hawk-eagle and scarlet-rumped trogan (just the name of that makes me giggle so it is now my favourite avis!) We also took a trip down an oxbow lake (everyone's favourite geography lesson!); a more narrow section of riverine jungle to gaze at, which eventually came to an end, not for any other reason than it had been taken over by encroaching cabbages and water hyacinth. We were forced to retreat because of this army of cabbages and went for lunch in nearby Abai Village.

One of 32-40 ethnic groups in Malaysian Borneo, this small village of 'orang-sungai' (men of the river) cultivates nurseries of native trees which can be planted in land reclaimed from palm oil plantations. It's an excellent eco-tourism project as you can pay a donation to 'buy' a sapling from the village and trudge off into the jungle to plant it yourself. Not only does this help the villagers sustain their remote way of life, but encourages them to favour conservation of the environment rather than get involved with palm oil as a form of income. Plus, you are directly and personally increasing the habitat of the orangutan's, sun bear's and other awesome folk that like hanging out here! We planted three Mulatus species; apparently the favourite food of the proboscis monkey. Bon Appetite my funny-nosed friends!

Then it was time to say goodbye to Abai jungle lodge and its resident bearded pigs and monitor lizard, and transfer further up the river to the more developed Sukau area. Road access to this section of the river has allowed more lodges and villages to prosper, and as we delve further into fresh water, the salt loving mangroves give way to a greater variety of vegetation and a more dramatic landscape. We arrived at Abai's sister lodge Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge and were greeted by the now common flank of smiling faces, cold flannel and chilled glass of juice, and also by a tree full of boisterous macaques and a couple of oriental pied hornbills squawking their hello.

An afternoon river cruise here was quite different, as we wound our way down a narrow tributary called the Menanggul River, a watery corridor of thick steamy jungle teeming with life. Whole trees shaking with families of macaque and proboscis monkeys; existing quite harmoniously due to their totally different diets and therefore lack of competition for food. The guides here are amazing, with around 10 years experience of tracking wildlife on this river they have the most incredible ability to spot the fauna. 

They would see a tiny brown smear on the riverbank which 100 metres closer turned out to be a young crocodile smiling at us, now within inches of our camera lens. A quick flash of colour amongst miles of green and we homed in on a stork-billed kingfisher. 

I was hoping for an encounter with the pygmy elephants, but apparently word had it that they were inland at the moment as they are usually seen most days if in the area. No nesting orangutans this evening, but I as amused by the explanation of a series of ropes crossing the river: as the 'men of the forest' (orang-utan) are not good swimmers like the proboscis and macaque monkeys, these ropes were erected to encourage interbreeding between groups.

We returned to the lodge and had time to shower and refresh before the dinner gong was sounded. We were shown how to adorn ourselves with the traditional sarong that is worn when relaxing at home. A most comfortable way to enjoy steamed ginger fish and locally caught prawns I must say.

John - Day 4, Gomantong Cave

We had an eventful day at Borneo Nature Lodge. Jessie left her small backpack by the front of her room to dry and soon the local troop of macaques saw an opportunity. These mischievous primates are often referred to as the 'thieves of Borneo'; a deserved nickname. They quickly raided Jessie's front porch and made off with her bag, taking it high up a nearby tree. They then proceeded to inspect their pillaged loot. The only item they found of interest was a camel pack water bag, dropping the unwanted backpack to the ground. This was lucky as one of the staff soon found it and therefore had a rough idea of where the monkeys had been checking the contents. Otherwise, the bag and the items inside could have been anywhere as far as we knew! As the macaques' nickname suggests, this is a common occurrence in Borneo. One guide from a couple days previously had told me about a guest who furiously entered the reception saying, 'someone's stolen my bag!' 'Where did you leave it sir?' 'Just outside my room! I only went in for 5 minutes!' He then walked with the guest back to his room and confirmed his suspicion. 'Ah, yes, look up.' The roof of the lodge was covered with clothes and other miscellaneous items. Fortunately for Jessie, her experience of macaque burglary was a novel one as nothing was damaged and we got to see a staff member show off his climbing skills to retrieve her water bag from up a Mangosteen tree. He used a very simian approach walking on all fours along a horizontal branch, earning him the nickname of orangutan from Jessie. This was an apt name since it comes from the Malay words for 'man of the forest.'

In the afternoon we set out to visit the Gomantong cave; the largest cave and main producer of edible bird's nests in Sabah. These nests are made by swiftlets which number around one million in this cave alone and are used to make the famous bird's nest soup. Great care is taken to harvest these valuable nests without negative effect to the birds. A nest is only taken if the young have fully fledged and flown away or if no eggs are found. These conditions are met for the two harvests per year to maintain the conservation enactment of 1997 which protects the birds. A good thing too since 1kg of the nests can usually fetch around £350 and can even be as much as £2400 depending on demand. A tempting item to overfarm! 

Also living in the cathedral sized cave are 17 species of bat of which there are approximately two million. This makes for a spectacular scene as they head out for the night's hunting around four o'clock depending on the weather. 

This forms a constant, rippling wave of bats that streams out of the cave entrances into the darkening sky and can last close to an hour! 

Interposed with this flow of flying mammals are the erratic movements of the swiftlets and some larger birds of prey which come for the abundance of literal fast food. The bats' defence towards this is to split up as the large birds close in, giving the visual rippled effect of a stone being thrown in a pond. The cave interior is not a place for the squeamish! A large mound of guano omitting a powerful odour covers the floor which you avoid stepping on as you use a walkway along the side. But the smell combined with the numerous bats flying within inches of your head could be too much for some. We thought it was brilliant! The bats have such an acute ability in sonar navigation that they will never touch you - unless maybe if you frantically wave your arms in the air - but you will often feel the rush of air as they swerve and eddy around your body. At the end of the walkway was a plastic chair which we took turns standing on positioning our heads into a main bat highway as the others tried to photograph the close proximity of the animals. We managed to get some good ones! Especially of Jessie next to a bat with its wings fully spread showing its entire front.

As we returned to the lodge, we were also lucky enough to see two colugos on a nearby tree. These animals are more easily known as flying lemurs and like the flying squirrels, they traverse the rainforest by gliding from tree to tree. A great sighting of a rare animal to finish a very special day of wildlife viewing!

John - Day 5, Tabin Wildlife Resort

We spent the morning and early afternoon travelling to the Tabin wildlife resort and so were eager to embark on an immediate activity upon arrival. After a short trek through the jungle, we arrived at the local mud volcano. This peculiar mound of viscous mud is rich in minerals giving off a distinct scent of sulphur and is supposedly an excellent treatment for skin conditions and a glowing complexion. Jessie and Dura got stuck right in, literally. A careful step is required on this formation as areas share the same dangerous properties as quicksand. One of Dura's wellies was sucked into the squelchy mud leading to our guide Rachel retrieving it; a task she had performed so numerously, that an exact count of saved footwear could not be given. Jessie and Dura soon had their faces covered in a healthy layer of the oozing goodness, and everywhere else as well! I had managed to stay clean due to a concern for my camera equipment but consented to a wimpy dab on my nose.

After sunset we set out on a night drive. Soon we had seen leopard cats, common palm civits, buffy fish owls, bearded pigs, a lone colugo and a couple of red giant flying squirrels; a much more common cousin of the pygmy flying squirrel I had seen previously. So it was a successful excursion to say the least!

Jessie - Day 6, Danum Valley

We were due an early departure from Tabin this morning, and as we had only arrived yesterday afternoon I wanted to get some more exploring in before we left. This meant waking up at the crack of dawn, which is neither difficult nor begrudged as the orchestra of a rich pulsating jungle reaches its crescendo as the sun rises. Waking up early is easy when one is greeted with such an impressive curtain-opener!

I'd slept so deeply, lulled by the roaring river which ran below my quirky wooden cabin. So, feeling refreshed, I threw on some clothes and darted out to see what was going on in such a noisy world. Traversing the 'orangutan crossing' suspension bridge, I paused a moment midway to watch the gushing torrents of monsoon season and ponder the river as a vital artery feeding the rainforest with life! At the end of the bridge the forest trails start, with big signs saying 'Warning. Do not enter trail without a guide'. The rebellious side in me encouraged a cheeky skip down one of the trails, but as soon as I reached the first bend, the reality of a bull elephant crashing down this narrow path and the story of a veterinarian nurse being trampled and gored to death four years ago, made me sheepishly turn back!

There are apparently over 550 elephants in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, so, after missing them in the Kinabatangan River, where they are quite common, and then here also, we couldn't help feel somewhat disappointed that our opportunity had been missed. Which is why, after 4.5 hours of driving to get to our next destination, Danum Valley, dozy and travel weary and lost in a reverie with my headphones on, it was a strange unbelievable yelp that escaped my mouth. 

A family of five pygmy elephants appeared trundling along the road in front of us! 

Everyone was far too stunned to formulate words such as 'can you please pass my camera' or ' look there are some elephants' so it was with quite an amusing mix of verbal noises, gasps and unsuccessful fumblings with which we tried to capture the swinging grey botttoms of three adults and two babies before they disappeared into the thick curtain of jungle, trumpeting as they went. We could no longer see them, but the sound of that beautiful trumpeting continued sporadically. What a unique and joyful sound a trumpet of an elephant is!

We arrived at Danum Valley and the impressive Borneo Rainforest Lodge to be greeted with a chilled lemongrass scented flannel, a refreshing drink and necklaces made of fragrant pandan leaf. Welcome ceremony over, we were quickly ushered back outside as a large group of red leaf monkeys gathered by the walkway playing and grooming each other! They seemed oblivious as we crept closer to get photos, totally wild and a rare sight, this adorable troop seemed to just like hanging out here as they passed through. What an very auspicious entrance to this renowned area of primary rainforest and the highly acclaimed Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

With the dusk hours still to come, we joined a trek to the canopy walkway to gain a more advantageous perspective on this dense, ancient jungle. 300 metres long and 27 metres high, it's an entirely different world viewing life from at least a layer, two, or three of a typically five-layered ecosystem prevalent in primary status rainforest. Gazing up at a towering Soraya Dipterocarp tree, only to tilt your eyes downwards and see the same distance below you, is really rather humbling to say the least! With eager eyes we hoped to spot an orangutan nesting at this level, as did Prince William and Kate during their visit here just before her pregnancy. Alas not, but pygmy elephants and close range red leaf monkeys were more than enough to ensure a satisfied nights sleep!

Jessie - Day 7, Danum Valley

Wow, wow and wow again. I feel like I've died and gone to natural world heaven! I'm glad John and Dura are here so I can share it, or at least confirm it's real!

The night time chorus of tree frogs provides a great background percussion to the hooting calls of gibbons that drift through the treetops at sunrise. Thick layers of ancient forest, and trees so tall it hurts your neck to try and see the tops of them, this area of protected primary rainforest makes an effective, safe and impenetrable haven for a magnificent amount of life. Danum Valley is 170 million years old. Its foliage present the same time dinosaurs were the dominant terrestrial vertebrate. This means we were hanging out in the stomping ground of diplodocus. We were waking up in Jurassic Park!

Our guide, Paul, took us on a morning walk to a viewpoint which overlooks the lodge, Danum River, and the sweeping verdant valley. Usually difficult to see among the density, he managed to spot a pair of our morning hooting friends swinging between the branches of a tree in the distance. 

Gibbons are the very best of all the tree swingers, being light and strong and extremely quick in their arboreal traversing. 

Paul told us a very amusing story about a mother gibbon trying to protect her young from a clouded leopard; every time the leopard advanced to make an attack, the mother would leap in front of him and spin around the branch incessantly, kicking him in the face, flank and genitals consecutively, until he went away! I'd love to know the RPM of such a spinning ninja gibbon-wheel!

We trekked on upwards past a 300 year old coffin, with teeth and bones still in tact and strewn about the rocks where macaques had been plundering. Apparently it was an old tribal tradition to carry the dead up as high as possible so their spirit was closer to heaven. Then, as the jungle heat surrounded us, we stopped to splash our faces in the cool water of the 'fairy falls' that sprayed from high above. The mist in the sunlight adding to the fantastical and surreal Indiana Jones/Jurassic Park vibe! The steep climb to the viewpoint and the buckets of sweat it induced, was all worth it to stand on that high boulder overlooking such a vast, complex ecosystem. So innately intelligent. The working wisdom of millennia. A sadly rare pocket of preserved perfection.

Back to the lodge for lunch. Another stupidly impressive occasion at Borneo Rainforest Lodge. With a delectable variety of interesting Asian dishes, an egg station, bbq, burger and pasta stations, not to mention salad bar and dessert table; decisions are impossible and soon leave us needing several more viewpoint hikes to counteract our indulgences! Nonetheless, the afternoon found Dura and I sampling the spa instead, and subjecting ourselves to a most heavenly traditional massage with aromatherapy oils made from local herbs. It's a tough life here! To add to this horrendous day, I discovered I had been upgraded to the premium villa. So we spent the dusk hours sipping on sundowners whilst bathing in my private infinity plunge pool, overlooking the Danum river and the towering jungle, beneath a pink sky!

The day wasn't over yet though. As you wildlife lovers well know, the jungle doesn't sleep and there's plenty to discover under the cloak of darkness. Tonight we joined a night drive, looking out for the telling glint of nocturnal eyes powerfully reflecting our torchlight. 

After a brief sighting of a shy mouse deer and scurrying civet cat, it was the giant flying squirrels that stole the show. 

So many of them cowering high in the trees, we waited patiently to see if one would fly. The guide was great as he knew it wasn't likely if the tree was in a certain place, and we were finally rewarded when we came across one perched right on the edge who was spooked by the light and flew right across a clear patch of sky like a strange clawed orange kite! There were also a couple of flying lemur sheepishly skirting around tree trunks, and a large hairy tarantula festooned on a gnarly branch. 

Then, driving back, with the bright light of the moon casting silhouettes of the jungle, I watched the shapes made by the huge strangler fig trees that sprawl up and over their host like a suffocating green duvet. Right then, in eerie night air, surrounded by luminescent fungus and ancient jungle vines, I could have sworn I saw a T-Rex!

John - Day 8, Kota Kinabalu

We arrived at the luxurious Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort at 1.30 and, already being late, had to rush to the orangutan sanctuary and rehabilitation centre owned by the hotel. At present, there are three young orangutans that can be viewed during the feeding time; two small infants and one slightly older but noticeably more mature. The larger ape immediately sat down next to the pile of fruit left for them, leisurely enjoying his food. The other two took a more restless approach to their lunch. After grabbing a juicy morsel, they would swing about the platform settling in different trees. After each bite was finished, they would return to the platform to repeat the overly energetic process. The older orangutan watched this playful display wearily and then looked at the crowd of human spectators as if to say 'kids' in an exasperated manner. 

Once the viewing was finished, we had little time before being driven to the Tanjung Aru Resort. Although this was our accommodation for the following night, we would return from a day trip too late to see one of their unique selling points; the sunset bar. However, as we drove through the rush hour traffic, the temperamental weather spawned heavy rain and a thick blanket of grey cloud, dampening our spirits with the prospect of a gloomy sunset. Secretly though, I was harbouring hope. The Bornean rain can cease as quickly as it starts, and if it did, things would turn out for the better. There is a common misconception that, for a decent sunset, clear skies are needed, when in fact the near opposite is true. The best conditions are actually plentiful cloud cover with gaps for the suns rays to shine through bouncing about and dispersing the light into an assortment of colours. Luckily, as we arrived, the rain stopped. Now we just needed the clouds to clear a tiny little bit. While we waited, one of their signature cocktails were served to us; the 'Beergarita.' This bucket sized, delicious and very inebriating drink provided us with some distraction resulting in yells of shock when the sunset finally did occur. It was spectacular!

John - Day 9, Kota Kinabalu

We left early in the morning for our day trip around the base of the Kota Kinabalu Mountain inspecting the lodges and available activities in the area. The more intrepid travellers who wish to climb the mountain would need to spend a night in this area before starting their excursion the following day. To occupy themselves during the day travellers can visit the Sabah Tea Gardens or the Poring Hot Springs in Kinabalu Park with its nearby canopy walkway which is popular among the locals. The school holidays coincided with our visit so the springs were very crowded, but there are other activities in the park to engage in such as their tropical gardens, Orchid Conservation Centre and butterfly farm. They also have a Rafflesia garden where, if you’re very lucky, you can see the brief blooming of the largest flower in the world.

My favourite attraction in this area of Sabah, being a museum enthusiast, was the Kinabalu Natural History Gallery; a good place to learn about the area's geological and ecological history. For people about to climb the mountain, this gallery will also give you a sense of the flora and fauna you might see on your way up.

The nearby Nabalu Handicraft Market is a great place to buy some souvenirs and gifts. Unlike many markets, the people are friendly and don't hassle you after merely looking at their stall. I found a slightly functional blowpipe made out of bamboo and after finding out the asking price of 15 Ringgits (about two pounds sterling), decided haggling would be a bit miserly. An authentic blowpipe made from hardwood usually costs around 100 pounds, so considering it worked, within a short distance, mine was a decent alternative. There is also a viewpoint next to the marketplace where you can observe Mount Kinabalu if the usually present clouds clear. Unfortunately for us it was too overcast to see it.

During the course of the day we had travelled far, and so our return to the Tanjung Aru Resort took three hours. We made up for this arduous journey by indulging our appetites with a mountain of seafood, similar in quantity to a Christmas feast. Then, with much satisfied groaning, I slowly shuffled into bed.

Jessie - Day 10, Miki's Survival Camp

Another early start today as we were off on the more intrepid part of our journey, Miki’s Survival Camp. I was both excited and hesitant about this bit. I absolutely love the whole concept of Miki’s eco-tourism project, which immerses tourists in the traditional way of life of the Kadazan-Dusun people, and teaches them how to survive in the jungle. My only reserve was that we’d gotten a bit too used to staying in these lovely luxurious hotels, so roughing it in a tent in the middle of rainy season wasn’t sounding quite as dazzling!

However, the seafood banquets and champagne cocktails soon faded into insignificance as soon as we starting ascending the foothills of the mighty Mount Kinabalu. I had started to doubt the existence of this highest peak in south-east Asia, as since we’d been in Kota Kinabalu it had been sporting a huge cloudy hat, only its murky grey hips providing a stark and misty backdrop to the cityscape. But today we were very lucky as the skies were clear, and as soon as we left the bubble of the Shangri-La resort and looked out the car window, this huge behemoth was towering above Sabah, dominating the skyline and daring us to question its existence!

The two hour drive to Kiau Village, nestled in a fertile nook of the mountain’s lower reach, afforded us spectacular views of the craggy peaks, one of the two ‘donkey ears’ now missing from the recent tremors. We took the winding track into Miki’s village where we were refreshed with local coffee and a bunch of the most delicious bananas in the world. Our guide, Ronnie, then proffered two handmade walking sticks and we set off on our two hour trek to Miki’s Survival Camp, deep in the rainforest at the convergence of several gushing mountain streams. The trek was beautiful, varied and challenging, everything I could hope for on such an adventure. The first half we traversed the narrow trails used by the villagers, through crop fields of pineapples and rice. Colourful animated dots among the steep slopes of yellow rice plants, trying to harvest the crop whilst orbited by over-excited dogs, and the stunning backdrop of Mount Kinabalu keeping a fatherly watch over its valleys.  We then descended into thick jungle for the second half of the trek, a gorgeous contrast as we were enveloped by a lush canopy to protect us from the now blazing sunshine. Not so welcomed by John, however, as this also meant the onslaught of leeches! Rainy season is not the time to visit such a wild jungle as this. Not unless you favour the medieval methods of blood sucking medicine anyway! Poor John spent next 24 hours in a state of intense vigilance in order to keep off the wiggly parasites. I wasn’t as pre-occupied with the leeches as I had to focus my attention on each small uneven step, having fallen and twisted my ankle about half way there! Being stubborn I didn’t want to go back, so painfully hobbled on, now with two machete-fashioned walking sticks.

If you are after a real ‘off the beaten track’ trekking experience this really is it; swiping through jungle vines with a machete, wading through babbling brooks and crossing narrow bamboo bridges, knowing you couldn’t just follow a track and find your own way. We’d have been totally lost without Ronnie and his machete! We finally arrived at Miki’s Survival Camp, and ravenously devoured the Malay noodles, rice porridge and fragrant chicken that awaited us, cooked by Mike, Miki’s lovely sister.

The afternoon was then spent learning bush craft skills. Attracting many school groups from the UK, as well as local NGO groups and other folk wanting to learn survival techniques, this camp is set up perfectly to really get to grips with nature. Ronnie showed us how to make bamboo cups and animal traps to catch birds and squirrel. We then spent a fair while practicing our blow pipe skills, using a pineapple with a face carved into it as a target! All three of us eventually shot the bamboo dart right into Mr. Pinehead’s nose!

After a delectable dinner of jungle foraged vegetables, sweet and sour chicken and omelette, we had a night walk. Quite an adventure as the rain had only just subsided! We didn’t last as long as we’d hoped in our hunt for insects and glowing fungi, all too aware of the extra hunt we’d have back in our tents before bed.

With darkness heavily upon us by 6pm, we were heading to snooze land by 7.30pm! The tents are on a wooden platform risen above the jungle floor and have a corrugated roof over the top of them, so we were protected quite thoroughly from any intruding fauna or dribbling flora. Our paranoid insect hunt proving thankfully unfruitful. After two nights in the city, I’d not slept too well in the eerie silence, so I welcomed my favourite lullaby of the raucous rainforest and drifted off quite easily.

Jessie - Day 11, Miki's Survival Camp - Gaya Island

As the pitch changed from frog chorus to bird song, we emerged from our tents to steaming local coffee, Malay noodles, and the fresh smell of thoroughly drenched and quenched foliage. A less welcoming searing pain also greeted me as I tried to stand up and realised my ankle now resembled that of the pygmy elephant we saw at Danum! Why didn’t I just turn back when I could!

Without any painkillers I just stuffed myself with extra bananas (the small sweet jungle variety are very tasty indeed!) and insisted we left imminently. We had a boat to catch to get to our next destination: the stunning and luxurious Gaya Island, and I wasn’t going to miss it because of a silly ankle!

Ronnie led us back through thick vibrating morning jungle, showing us plants that were used for traditional medicine: such as a bamboo eye wash, or the tiger balm tree. John continued his futile assault on the leeches and I practiced the most focused form of ‘walking meditation’ I’ve ever accomplished. Each tiny step a carefully engineered accomplishment accompanied by an unrewarding stab of pain! Several times Ronnie asked if I wanted one of the mountain guides to come and rescue me and carry me back. These small strong guys can carry up to 100kg and are used to rescuing people from the mighty Mount Kinabalu, but even at just over half that weight I couldn’t bear the thought of giving in. Besides, since the earthquake 5 months ago all the guides have sadly been out of work due to the mountain closure, and I didn’t fancy testing their fitness levels.

Making it back to Kiau Village was a relief, somewhat disappointed I was too distracted to enjoy the views on the way back, but over-joyed at the sight of stable ground and a pile of home-made breaded banana! They are over-run with ripening bananas at this time of year so have to be creative in ways to consume them before they spoil. These squidgy fried balls of deliciousness were simply divine after our intrepid adventure!

After reuniting with our driver and big bags, re-hydrating with cold beverages, and relieving my pain with blessed ibuprofen, we were on our way to Jesselton Point ferry terminal; and the tropical island paradise of Gaya Island! The sun was forcefully out again, not a cloud in the sky, and as the speed boat whizzed through sparkling ocean and approached the vegetation smothered island, I could see why this beach destination was hailed more accurately as a natural world heaven. With a protected marine park surrounding it, and primary rainforest all over it, this island is full of wildlife to encounter. There are two marine conservation centres which focus on such things as the re-growth of coral and rescuing sea turtles; countless nature trails to explore with the macaques, proboscis monkeys, monitor lizards and hornbills; a canopy walkway leading to a zip-line and an inordinate amount of friendly chameleons; and quiet bays to snorkel in with the catfish, parrot fish and clown fish.

Gaya Island would be our last stop on this epic trip, and I can’t think of a more fitting place to celebrate and ponder; as I sit back on a hammock with a pina colada, and watch the blood moon rise over the water; a bearded pig wandering past having a good old snuffle along the beach!

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John - Day 12-13, Gaya Island

After a relaxed breakfast we caught a short boat ride across the cove to Gayana Eco resort for an inspection. While the resort is lacking in a decent beach, the stilted rooms extending over the sea, facilitated by wooden boardwalks lined with colourful flowers make for a very picturesque setting. Many of the lodges also have their own private stairways into the sea next to balconies equipped with sun loungers. So a large, well maintained beach would be quite superfluous for the resort. 

We were particularly fond of the Palm Villa which was a proper party room! Apart from having a sound system, two person Jacuzzi bath, plunge pool and a fantastic view from the balcony, one of the seating areas, next to the mini bar, has a glass floor. So you can watch any sea life congregating under the lodge while sitting down, enjoying a drink! At night time, lights illuminate the area below the glass flooring which actually attracts fish, making for even better viewing. 

Another main attraction of this resort is the Marine Ecology Research Centre which provides visitors a chance to learn about and engage in the local conservation efforts to protect the marine life. 

This is also a great resort for scuba divers. Most accommodation in this area of Borneo uses separate diving companies whereas Gayana Eco Resort has its own PADI certified dive centre complete with the necessary equipment and certified instructors.

With the inspection finished, it was time to head to our final accommodation; Bunga Raya Island Resort & Spa. What a place to finish the trip! Hidden in a secluded cove with a large, white sand beach and comfortable wooden lodges harmoniously located amongst the trees this is a truly exclusive and luxurious setting. What’s more, as we were visiting during low season, we pretty much had the place to ourselves! 

We quickly unpacked our bags and headed straight to the beach, spoilt for choice over all of the sun loungers. This is where we spent the majority of the day, sipping on beers and cocktails, enjoying the respite from our hectic timetable. In the evening we gorged ourselves with delicious food from the Pantai Grill restaurant situated next to the beach. We continued the alcoholic theme of the day, choosing from the substantial wine list that detailed their well-stocked cellar. As we ate, a fully grown bearded pig wandered past our table, searching for food along the beach. Annoyingly, I didn’t have my camera with me which is typical of Sod’s Law in wildlife photography and testament to always carrying your camera. On the other hand though, it is pleasant to just watch and enjoy wildlife rather than seeing it through a camera lens. But still, I hate missing a photographic opportunity!

The next day we tried out the resort’s nature boardwalk and zip line. Other than a troop of macaques, we saw a large number of the local chameleons. As you move closer to these reptiles, they normally stay completely still, pretending to be part of the branch or tree trunk they’re perched on. While their colouring was suitable for this technique in camouflage, their large body was not and we were seeing them all over the place. This did mean though that we could get very close to the creatures for photos. 

The zip lining was great fun, involving three zip wires, zooming through the canopy, seeing the area from a monkey’s perspective. At points you can see the spectacular view of the bay through gaps in the trees. 

For the final wire, you are told that you can avoid using the brake, if inclined. For men though, I would suggest slightly using the brake since the stop at the end is quite sudden and your speed seems to be mainly succumbed by your harness in the groin area! I had to spend a few minutes afterwards gathering myself and ungathering my boxer shorts for some wedgie relief. Upon return, we had four hours to enjoy the beach before heading to the airport for our flight home. 

A perfect ending to an amazing trip.

If you are interested in having your own adventure in Borneo then read our extensive guide to seeing orangutans in the wild or get in touch with us for advice on planning your trip.

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Arabella

27/11/2015 12:00 PM

Dear Sharon, Many thanks for your lovely comment about your recent safari to Borneo and delighted that you absolutely loved it and are also enjoying Jessie & John's blog - they both write so well. They are finishing their safari soon but there are still some exciting updates to come, including more about their time in Danum Valley. We can't wait to have them back in the office to hear more about their travels, but am sure they'd rather stay in Borneo longer! Best wishes, Arabella (Sales Manager).

Sharon McMillan

27/11/2015 7:00 AM

Just came back from a 10 day Borneo wildlife adventure in September and absolutely loved it. Your blog is so informative and descriptive, takes me back and have so many fond memories. Keep up the great adventures.

Stephanie Harold

25/11/2015 10:30 AM

Fascinating!

Louise Whitestone

24/11/2015 6:00 PM

Loving these blog entries and photos and very thirsty for more! Mmm, when could we fit in a trip to Borneo?!!...

Arabella

18/11/2015 9:00 AM

Lovely blog both - thanks for sending through and can't wait to read more updates of your adventures!

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