Trip report of a two week trip around the Sabah province on Borneo in Malaysia from April 2nd – 14th 2011.
I took an organized round trip to Sabah on the island of Borneo, located off the coast of mainland South East Asia. The tour operator is specialized in nature tours in small groups and we were just 6 participants with two tour guides for this two week trip to the province of Sabah, a Malaysian state.
Borneo is actually the third largest island in the world and is comprised of three different counts: Indonesia (called Kalimantan, about 53%), Malaysia (called Borneo, about 26%) and the Sultanate sovereign state of Brunei on the northern coast which occupies about 1% of the island.
Considered to have one of the oldest rainforests in the world, Borneo has frequently been in the top of environmental concerns which are even more complicated by the existence of three separate nations each with their own policies in regards to the future of the rainforests.
View Sabah – Borneo 2011 in a larger map
Part I: Kinabalu National Park
We disembarked at 10:00am at the international airport of Kota Kinabalu after a long flight from Europe. We got our luggage and were taken to the hotel in Kota Kinabalu, the Hyatt Regency. The program for the day is already over, we are all tired from the long flight and welcomed the rest in which we can acclimate to the very humid hot sunny weather on Borneo.
I relaxed just for a few hours in the room before going to the pool for a while. At 32 °C (90F) there is not much I could do anyway as I was not used to this climate coming from nearly wintery Europe in comparison. In early evening, I went to the waterfront of Kota Kinabalu which is just in front of the hotel. A lot of people, tourists as well as locals were there to admire the sunset over the sea. I met the tour guide and we enjoyed dinner at a food stall on the waterfront, taking tasty fried noodles with fish. We did, however, not stay too long and headed back to the hotel; it was a long and tiring flight.
We left the hotel at 9:00am and took the direction of the Kinabalu National Park. On the way to the Kinabalu National Park, the Mount Kinabalu made an appearance out of the clouds. We stopped immediately to take a few photos; one never knows when Mount Kinabalu will show itself again. A few minutes later, the mountain already disappeared back into the clouds. We made another stop in a village for a longer break. The market was unfortunately closed as it was Sunday. There were only a few sellers with only a few bananas or pineapples. We reached the Mountain Lodge at the edge of the Kinabalu National Park just before lunch. It is a simple hotel but the rooms did have a superb view on Mount Kinabalu. We appreciated the fresher mountain air on 1500m (5000ft) above sea level.
After lunch, we took our first trip to the National Park; a walk in the forest to get an overview about what is growing there. The trails are easy and very well build. We are shown, among other things, the smallest orchid in the world. In the green woods, there are a few trees which caught our attention with an almost orange glowing trunk. These trees belong to the family of Eucalyptus and are endemic for Borneo. After the walk, we headed for the botanical garden. Besides a few flowering orchids, there are some quite large Nepenthes (tropical pitcher plants).
We also kept a lookout for birds. There are quite a lot there, but the observation is really tough. It is almost impossible to describe where a bird is sitting in this dense forest and there is always branches or leaves in between preventing a clear view. Usually, one understands the location the guide tries to explain just at the moment the bird flies away. A very welcome exception for the afternoon was an Indigo Flycatcher sitting surprisingly free and showing its beautiful colors.
After the botanical garden, we went to a power plant. This is one of the starting points for the climbers of Mount Kinabalu. We took a walk along the road in the forest but a dense fog was coming in so we finally returned to the lodge by 5:00pm.
In the evening the fog lifted for a little while giving a great view on Mount Kinabalu during sunset.
The night was cool and comfortable thanks to the altitude. We left the lodge at 8:00am and drove to Poring Hot Springs at 500m (1600ft) altitude. The sky is mostly covered, but back at these lower altitudes, it is again very hot and humid.
We began the visit with the canopy walk. A Pigmy Squirrel could be seen on a tree. For the canopy walk, I needed to pay an additional fee of RMY 5 (USD 2) per camera to be allowed to take photos from the bridges. The hanging bridges between the trees are fairly different than those in Costa Rica. Here the bridges are very narrow and so unstable that observing or photographing is not possible. In addition, there are so many visitors you cannot even stand still for a little while to appreciate what a canopy walk is initially meant for: to give the visitor a chance to observe the rainforest from above. There is little enthusiasm in the group on this canopy walk. Given the conditions, we could also have saved the camera fee.
Then we went for a hike to a waterfall. On the way we discovered a crab spider. In this dense forest one is well protected from the sun, but then, the dense forest also protects one from the wind; one gets very hot and sweaty.
The forest is loud. Besides the cicadas one can hear a lot of birds, but these are again extremely hard to see. Except for a Black Headed Bulbul, most of the other birds were out of reach of the camera or constantly hidden by branches.
After lunch we left the Poring Hot Springs and headed back towards Mount Kinabalu. We made a detour via the Mesilau Nature Reserve at 1900m (6200ft) above sea level. The air was again very pleasant. There is, however, a fairly strong wind which makes bird watching even more difficult. We discovered a little snake curled on a rock, a Red Headed Keel Back Snake according to our guide, a venomous snake.
Finally we took the way back to our lodge, just in time. At the moment we reached the rooms, it began to rain, a real tropical downpour.
It rained almost the entire night.
We left the lodge at 8:30 in the morning and went again to the power plant within the national park. Since the trails are way too wet after this rainy night, we just walked along the road from the power plant to the entrance of the National Park and looked out for birds and flowers. Unfortunately, like the previous days, while there are a lot of birds to be heard, few do get within range of the camera. In addition of the birds, there were quite a few beautiful yellow orchids growing wild just next to the road, as well as wild ginger. During the walk we had a light drizzle. We all marveled at the many different ferns and lichens. Shortly after noon we were back at the lodge for lunch and the rain finally took a break as well.
After the lunch break we went back into the National Park and took a hike after the visit of the very nice Park’s Natural History Museum. Thankfully there were quite a few birds which could not only be seen, but who showed themselves well within reach. One such bird was a Chestnut-headed babbler. However, the dry period since lunch did not hold out very long and the heavy rain was back at 4pm sp we canceedl the hike and drove back to the lodge.
It rained almost the whole night again.
In the morning it was overcast, but at least dry. Mount Kinabalu showed itself for a few moments without clouds. In the plants around the lodge are quite a few stick insects to be seen, at least for the trained eyes of the local tour guide.
We packed our bags and left the lodge. We took the road back and firstly went to a market. Most people do unfortunately not want to be photographed, at least not by men. The women in the group however, could freely take photos. There are not a lot of different fruits to be seen in this season. Apart from the usual bananas and pineapples are a few papayas. There were, however, a lot of vegetables as well as a large selection of dried fish.
The tour continued to Kota Kinabalu. The tour guide took us to a bird sanctuary nearly within the city. The area is a mangrove swamp. There are some birds to be heard but seldom can they be seen. There is a colony of Purple Herons as well as one Mangrove Heron fishing just in front of one of the hides and quite a few very colorful doves. The employees of the bird sanctuary tried to release a pretty large mud crab from a fisher net.
After this visit, it was time to go to the hotel, again the Hyatt Regency. We hardly arrived at the hotel when it started to rain again. The hotel is providing umbrellas if we wanted to go out despite the weather.
I went again to one of the food stalls along the sea to have dinner.
The first days of the trip to the Kinabalu National Park had been interesting. The altitude provided lower temperatures which helped us for the transition from still winter-like conditions in Europe compared to the tropical heat on Borneo. The walks in these tropical forests in the Kinabalu National Park were a most unique experience, a fairly dense forest with a vast variety of plants as well as birds and insects that were extremely loud.
On the downside was the weather. While it should have been the dry season, it rained almost every day. The other negative aspect was the high safe distance kept by the birds. Why do birds, even in National Parks or bird sanctuaries, keep such an extreme distance compared to similar regions and conditions like Costa Rica?
Part II: Sukau River
The day started very early. We left the hotel at 5:30 in the morning for the airport. It was cloudy, but at least it was not raining. We took the 7am flight to Sandakan. Before takeoff, the pilot announced the weather for Sandaken: rain… During the flight, the clouds blocked the view on Mount Kinabalu. As we approached Sandakan in the rain, what looked like rain forest during the flight at higher altitude turns out to be a single, huge area of palm oil plantation. The flight to Sandakan took just 40 minutes. From the airport, it took a one hour to drive along with palm oil plantations on both sides of the road to the jetty where we took the boat out to Libaran Island. The boat ride trip us through narrow flow paths between palms and mangroves before reaching the sea. There was hardly a dry spot in the boat with all the rain coming down.
As we reached Libaran Island, the rain came to an end as well, I was dripping wet. It took quite some time until everyone had an acceptable room in this Libaran Island Lodge which had its best years probably many years before. My first room had no water at all and it took them one hour to find out that they will not be able to fix it. They spent another two hours cleaning another room for me.
We took a longer afternoon break after lunch. There are quite a few birds around; doves, sandpipers and even an eagle. But the safety distance kept by the birds was extremely high here as well. The sky cleared up during the afternoon and finally blue sky came out. At 4pm, we were served coffee and fried noodles.
At 5:00 pm we took the boat again. This time is was for the main purpose of the trip to this region: an evening on Selingan Island in the sea turtle sanctuary. The boat ride took 30 minutes. Selingan is a beautiful little tropical island like all of us had imagined; beautiful sandy beaches and palm trees. The visible distant islands that could be seen from here belong to the Philippines. We first watched the beautiful sunset before heading for the visitors’ center of the island.
From 6:00 pm onwards no one is allowed on the beach anymore. We took seats around the visitors’ center where we had our dinner without any light except moonlight. Artificial light is not permitted as it might confuse the turtles. The tour guide explains to us what is coming next: we wait until the rangers come and get us once a turtle is sighted on the beach. Those wanting to take photos are required to pay a camera fee which will be used for protection programs for turtles. A long wait began. The sky filled with stars, the first stars we had seen since our arrival on Borneo a few days earlier.
At 9:00 pm a ranger came and informed us that a turtle was laying eggs on the beach. Each night, four rangers monitor the beaches of the island and report each turtle coming ashore. They wait until the turtle has dug a nest in the sand and laid at least 30 eggs before bringing tourists to the turtle. This night, we are shown a pretty large green turtle laying a total of 106 eggs into the sand. An assistant took the eggs and put them into a bucket. Once the turtle was done, we were requested to calmly follow the ranger taking the eggs to the hatchery. We then head back to the beach following the ranger with a bucket of freshly born turtles. They are released one meter (3ft) away from the sea. The contact and recognition of the beach is important in order for them to find their way back to this beach when it will be their turn to lay eggs. Around 1% of these turtles will survive and visit this very beach in 15-30 years.
After this unique experience, we take the boat and go back to Libaran Island for the night.
After the sea turtle on the previous day, another highlight of this trip awaited us: orang utans. We left Libaran Island at 7:30 am and took the boat back to the mainland where the bus awaited us. Then we went to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center.
We reached the Sepilok Rehabilitation Center at 9:00 am where we first got a presentation about the objective of the center. The main purpose is to rehabilitate orang utans which have been kept as pets or the young orang utan orphans which need to be taught what they need to know in order to survive in the wild. The cost for rehabilitation per orang utan is over £1500 and can take up to 10 years. The money is needed for medicine, food as well as toys for the youngest. Another goal is to educate the human population, both locals and visitors, in order to make them more sensitive about these animals whose natural habitat might disappear completely within the next 10 years if no additional measures are taken. A particular threat is regarding the oil palm industry.
After the presentation and the film, we were given some rules to follow when entering the center. Bags were not allowed inside the center because they arouse the curiosity of the orang utans. The photographers are requested to pay attention to the equipment and keep some distance from the animals in order to avoid having to try to exchange a camera for food from the orang utans.
At 10:00 am we entered the center on broad walkways to platforms from where one could observe some of the 60-80 orang utans living in this center. This part reminded me a bit too much of a zoo visit where a lot of people are watching a few animals. I tried to find a better place to take photos and a bit further I saw a pretty young photogenic orang utan in the trees and shrubs.