I was going to write a single blog about Malaysia where I spent 6 brilliant weeks, but it was getting so long I thought you might switch off half way through, and that wouldn’t do at all! I have therefore divided it into three parts. Part 1 focuses on Borneo’s national parks which are teaming with wildlife. Part 2 details a one-off experience as a guest of an Iban chief and other Borneo experiences and Part 3 is all about the Malaysian Peninsular, minus my week with Ecoteer Turtle Conservation, which I posted a while back.
Borneo was top of my list of must visit places. It conjured up images of secluded beaches, pristine jungle, vast caves, soaring mountains and a network of rivers snaking the length and breath of the country. It is all of this and so much more.
The majority shareholder of the island (over 70% of the landmass and population) is the Indonesian state of Kalimantan but I decided to spend my time in the states of Sawarak and Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, which are separated along the west coast by the bite-size Kingdom of Brunei.
What a fantastic country. Take a look at the photo I took from the plane. Those caramel-coloured rivers define the landscape and are the lifeblood of the country. I became an expert in navigating them as I travelled both up country and deep into the interior.
Most tourists visit Sabah to climb the mighty Mount Kinabalu (no way in this heat), swing by the Orangutang sanctuary in Sepilok (too crowded for me) then head to Semporna for world class diving (foreign office advise not to go ‘cos of pirate kidnappings followed by beheading if the ransom isn’t paid). I therefore chose to start my travels right at the opposite end of the island in Sawarak’s capital city, Kuching – of which more in Part 2.
Malaysia has a mere 27 national parks, 23 of which are in Borneo and several are within easy reach of Kuching making it the perfect home base. Don’t think your average park, think hundreds of hectares of forest, mangroves, mountains, rivers, even beaches with INCREDIBLE wildlife.
The king if the jungle (to quote Baloo) is the Orangutang. Native to Borneo and Sumatra there are depressingly few remaining in either country. I was therefore thrilled to see six of these massive primates in the semi-wild i.e. they roam freely within the confines of Semenggoh Conservation Park. Watching a mother and baby swinging through the trees then descending to the forest floor to be joined by big daddy for a group nit pick was amazing. The park ranger had a magical call which echoed round the forest and brought the biggest Orangutang they have, crashing through the undergrowth to a feeding platform a few metres from us. There are no ropes or netting so we needed to be ready to move quickly should he have decided to take a closer look at us. Thankfully he wasn’t interested!
Bako National Park is reached by small boat and offers numerous hikes. A group of us who met on the early morning bus to the jetty decided to self-guide on a hike through dense jungle on the look out for the bulbous nosed, pot bellied proboscis monkey (check) before descending to the beach for a swim with sea lizards and giant jelly fish (check), with wild pigs strolling about (check), then hiking back a different route looking for insect-eating pitcher plants (check) and green vipers (no show), finally returning to base camp drenched in sweat for a well-earned beer (double, double check). I loved this place.
The last trip out of Kuching took four of us on a sunset boat ride, firstly across open water with the potential of seeing endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, then through mangroves looking for elusive crocodiles and not so elusive long-tailed macaques. We hit the jackpot, seeing at least 10 dolphins diving around us, followed by trees full of macaques and then two crocodiles floating menacingly past us. Once the sun set, our guide used a flashlight to pick out the eyes of a good few more crocs, some yellow, some red and some blue as our boat floated silently under trees aglow with millions of fire flys. Even the guide was impressed with what we saw. He was less impressed when, on heading back to the mooring slightly later than planned, we ran aground and had to wade through knee-high mud in the pitch dark. We thought it part and parcel of a truly memorable evening, and we got a free mud-wrap exfoliation!
As well as abundant wildlife, Sawarak is famed for its caves. Mulu National Park, reachable by a 30 minute flight in a single prop aircraft, which often as not doesn’t take off or land when it’s supposed to because of mist encircling the mountains (my flight out was delayed 5 hours), boasts the longest cave system in the world. Spelunking has never really been my thing but I must say that having a knowledgeable guide explain how they were formed, dissecting the layers of rock, explaining the difference between stalactites and helictites, pointing out the critters living on the cave floor that mainly live off bat guano and the transparent fish in the subterranean rivers, these constantly evolving caves came to life for me. However, Im not quite ready for ‘adventure caving’.
I also experienced my first night walk in Mulu and was treated to all manner of weird and wonderful creatures from centipedes – so big and hairy that they in fact only manage 50 legs, giant stick insects and elongated caterpillars, big toads and tiny frogs, shoestring worms, fire ants, crazy big spiders and a scorpion but again no snakes. It was Friday 13th so perhaps something was in the air because a huge number of these creatures were mating. Two frogs no bigger than my thumb nail were going at it hammer and tongs and making a real racket!
Mulu boasts the longest forest canopy walk in the world, and elevated at 35 meters, perhaps the highest too. Walking with a guide I learnt about the 5 layers of the forest and how they support each other. I also learnt about trees that are hosts to parasites and how they too work in harmony. As we walked high amongst the trees we were treated to beautiful birdsong and black butterflies with fluorescent blue, red or green markings and iridescent dragonflies flying all around us.
Just so you know, Gunung Mulu is the tallest mountain in Sawarak and The Pinnacles its most arduous climb. In 36+ degrees and 90% humidity I resisted the temptation to scale either and judging by the comments from those who did the climb, it was a wise decision.
The highlight of Sabah for me was the three days I spent in a simple homestay on the banks of the Kinabatangan River. My host, Osman was recommended to me by some guys I met in Vietnam. He is a bit of a celebrity because he guided David Attenborough a couple of years ago, featuring in his documentary on Borneo and also Freddie Flintoff, though not simultaneously!
My journey to Osman’s home was an adventure in itself. It required a spectacular bus ride climbing through Kinabalu National Park, with incredible views of the volcano which erupted not so long ago, a huge bit breaking off the top, and winding down into the verdant valleys. After 7 rather nauseous hours I was dropped off at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. Miraculously the ‘drop’ worked as a man waved at me and I jumped in his pick-up for a further 45km ride to a mooring where Osman’s wife Yunti was waiting with a small boat to take me to her home.
Also staying was a German couple, he commissioned by Nikon to take photos using its latest supersonic cameras (talk about lense envy) and my Aussie roommate who had a mass of amazing tattoos, various piercings, those big holes people have in their ears, a shaved head and was fervently into protecting our planet. She was terrific.
Osman and his son Tom took us on 3 incredible trips; one at dawn, one at dusk and one full afternoon. All the animals we saw were 100% in the wild which made it unpredictable and that much more thrilling.
Our first dusk trip we were lucky enough to see a huge male orangutang, albeit just the one and quite high up in the trees, but it doesn’t get more wild than that. We also saw lots of proboscis monkeys – without even breaking sweat (!), scores of long tailed macaques; cute pig tailed macaques, which I hadn’t seen before, and several silver leaf monkeys with their distinctive mohicans. Lots of the monkeys had babies, which was encouraging, not to mention really aaaahh, and most of them were within a few feet of our boat. On the branches were lizards and kingfishers whilst down on the ground were mid-size monitor lizards. This was a magical first exposure to an abundance of creatures as we coursed down Kinabatangan’s jungly tributaries.
Our dawn trip was all about birds. The mist was swirling off the river as we drifted along in silence, not another boat in sight. Up above I saw three, or was it four, varieties of hornbill, sitting in pairs in the trees making their distinctive call before flying off (flap, flap, flap, glide, flap, flap, flap, glide), a pair of purple storks, a gigantic storm stork, a sleepy eagle and loads of egrets standing gracefully in the river. It was so peaceful with not much happening when jn a split second a solitary crocodile, which we’d spotted in the undergrowth, like grease lightening leapt into the air, mouth open to catch a bird before splashing into the river right in front of the boat. I tell you, it was a real Attenborough moment but frustratingly without the film crew to capture it for me!
The most amazing experience of all happened on our afternoon trip. Our hope was to find the endangered Pygmy elephant (so called because of its diminutive size), which meant quite a long journey up river. I didn’t mind at all because it was such a beautiful, remote setting but if course I hoped we’d find some elephants. Seems it was our lucky day. Coming round a bend in the river, we saw three or four elephants going about their business and were able to get the boat within 10 feet of them. As we approach they shied away a little but as we sat quietly they grew in confidence and suddenly there was a herd of about 20 of them. At one point some of them got into the water for a swim and passed right by us, others wallowed in the mud or munched on the lush vegetation. In amongst the herd were three babies, one Osman reckoned was about 4 weeks old and suckling. It’s difficult to put into words how special the experience was.
The big downer to all of these experiences is that rampant deforestation, to plant lucrative palm oil, is forcing the wildlife ever closer to the riverbank. Soon they will have no land left to inhabit and, as commerce wins over nature, people like Osman are fearful for their future. This situation isn’t unique to Kinabatangan; great swathes of Malaysia’s forests are being converted into palm oil plantations. And it’s not just big corporations. Anyone with even the smallest amount of land can convert it to palm oil (with an easily accessible bank loan) and make a nice little income.
But I mustn’t end on a negative note. My last morning with Osman and Yunti, I sat in a bench enjoying birds flying across a cloudless azure blue sky as I watched the mesmerising flow of the caramel river. I was joined by one of the sweet children who I taught to play the penny whistle – to much family amusement. I felt sad to be leaving such a remarkable place but I felt truly blessed to have experienced three such magical days……..
……….and I still had 8 hours of stomach churning twisting and turning up and down the mountain to get back to Kota Kinabalu, so my enjoyment of the beauty of Borneo wasn’t quite over.
I didn’t get photos of everything I saw because the experience is better not constantly being viewed from behind a lense, but I hope you enjoy the animals I did manage to capture.
Part 2 is all about my amazing 48 hours as the guest of a Longhouse chief in a remote village in central Sawarak. Another epic journey.