Lisa G Saw

Photography

Borneo Adventure in Malaysia

I had an amazing time in the Malaysian part of Borneo on a tour booked with Exodus! I was lucky to have a really fabulous group of people on my tour. There were 15 of us in total, with a mix of solo travellers and couples and a good age range too, with most in the 30s to 50s. We got on really well! Thankfully, we didn’t have any whingers in the group! Since we experienced lots of rain, there was plenty of opportunity for moaning. But instead, we all made the best of the bad weather and didn’t let it detract from having a fantastic holiday. I’d expected rain, since we were in a tropical rainforest most of the time, but just not quite as much as we got! After our first day it rained every day of the tour bar one, mostly in the afternoon into the evenings and sometimes incredibly heavy and thundery. Even our tour guide had never known it to be so bad and it wasn't typical for the month. It was a blessing that it was at least warm rain! When it wasn’t raining, it was hot and humid and we were sweating from every pore! Despite the relatively constant discomfort of being either wet or sweaty, it made all the experiences that much more amazing and appreciated!

 

We stayed in some really fabulous places, particularly when we were visiting the various National Parks and Rainforests! The four worth noting were the garden cottages in Mulu National Park (fabulous accommodation right next to the forest), Sepilok Jungle Resort (with beautiful gardens, swimming pool and close to the orang-utan and sun bear sanctuaries), Myne Resort on the Kinabatangan River (beautiful gardens, lovely rooms and great views out over the river with fabulous wildlife spotting along the river) and best of all, the luxurious Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley, which was simply idyllic and the best of them all in every way!

 

So here are the highlights from my trip, a Top Ten if you will, in reverse order:-

 

10) Red Leaf Monkeys – We saw these cute colourful monkeys in Danum Valley, which is a protected area of pristine primary rainforest. On our first two sightings, these primates were a little distance away, sitting in the trees as we drove into the area on our first day and also on one of our walks. But a few of us had an even better viewing on our last morning. They were in the trees low down and very close to our lodge. They seemed as curious about us as we were of them. Unfortunately, we couldn’t watch them for hours as we had to check out from our rooms and leave!

 

9) Macaques - We saw a lot of macaques (both long tailed and stump tailed) in Bako National Park, Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary and on the Kinabatangan River. They were very cute and cheeky! They're like the baboons of Africa - usually up to mischief! In Bako we saw one approach the cafe and walk along the wall where people were sitting and when a man turned away for one second, the macaque went in for his chocolate sponge and successfully ran off with it! At Sepilok, when we were hoping to see the orangutans at one of the feeding sessions, there was a whole load of macaques there instead. Whilst it meant the orangutans stayed away, the macaques were great to watch. My favourite time we saw them was at the river. All the primates come and build their nests in the trees by the river every night and there was a particularly large number of babies in this one group and it was so fun to see them in the wild playing together and exploring their new world.

 

8) Caves and Bats - we saw some amazing limestone caves. Deer Cave in Mulu was just massive – the biggest I’ve ever seen – and links to other caves nearby, making it the second largest cave system in the world. One of the largest sections measures 174m wide and 122m high. Deer Cave is also well known for its bat exodus at dusk and luckily for us the rain stopped, well eased at least, just long enough for us to witness this amazing spectacle. They come up out of the cave and fly around in a circle and then fly off. Groups of them do this repeatedly. The finale was what seemed like a never-ending trail of bats flying across the evening sky. It looked like a giant slithering snake! There were quite literally millions of bats. Very impressive! At Gomantong Caves there were bats and also swiftlets. Three times a year, for two weeks only, the locals climb ladders to retrieve some of the nests – birds nest soup is considered a delicacy by some! I can’t say I tried it! The smell of ammonia was horrendous here and I had to wear a handkerchief across my nose and mouth! The guana (bird poop) created a massive mound in the middle of the cave and the place was teeming with cockroaches. Wan, our tour guide, lead us to belief we'd be walking through it, but we didn't. However, you didn't want to deviate from the boardwalk and pretty much we got used to never holding on to the railings anywhere! If it wasn't covered in poop or ants, there'd be other insects, most of which were poisonous! I certainly saw a large number of insects on this holiday and I never thought I would get quite so into this, but it was certainly interesting going on our night walks and spotting Bornean pit vipers, huntsman spiders, centipedes, millipedes, scorpions, stick insects and other various colourful creatures.

 

7) Sun bears - we went to visit the sanctuary next to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary and they were very cute. There were a few cubs, though not tiny, exploring their surroundings, digging for food. We even got to see one climb up a tree, which you don't often get to witness. I saw two play-fighting with each other too. They are mostly black and have a creamy yellow patch on their chest just under their head, hence the name.

 

6) Birds - we saw a large number of birds on the trip, from the massive birds of prey, about 4 or 5 different species of hornbill including the biggest - the rhinoceros hornbill, with their impressive casques above their beak. We saw purple herons, lesser egrets and various kingfishers, including the largest stork billed kingfisher. I had several good sightings of one at the Sepilok Jungle Resort where we were staying. In fact, that was the last thing I saw before I had to leave and catch my flight, so a nice lasting memory of the trip. There were also lots of beautifully coloured little sunbirds and flower peckers and a mass of different types of butterfly (ok, so not a bird, but it falls into the flying category). There were so large and colourful. There is such amazing diversity in the rainforest. Almost every other creature is a giant this or pygmy that…speaking of which…

 

5) Pygmy Elephants - there's a large herd of them in the conservation area by the Kinabatangan River but we'd been told they were in the plantation area and hadn't been seen by the river, bathing, for 4 days. There was only a 5% chance we'd see them from the river boat, but a group of 10 of us went for it one afternoon. Of course, within about 15 minutes of setting off it was raining, heavily, with thunder and lightening not too far off in the distance. I thought we'd be turning back, but onwards we went with only a local man steering the boat and he spoke next to no English. After an hour and a half, and with me completely drenched (I was sitting at the front getting the full brunt of it and my poncho was not the best), we finally reached the place the elephants like to come to the water, but there were none in sight. You can imagine how disheartened we were! On the return journey we at least had the chance to see various primates close to the river, which were fabulous sightings. Even the rain eventually stopped. The Gods must have been smiling down on us, because low and behold, we saw two elephants, away from the large herd, at the water. Another boat had spotted them and we saw the guide and boatman giving each other a high five - we weren't the only crazy ones out on the water trying to spot them! The tall grass largely obscured the pygmy elephants from sight. We mostly saw just the tops of their backs, big flapping ears and occasionally a trunk would rise above the grass as if they were smelling us and wondering what all the fuss was about. It was a mum and her calf. We were positioned alongside the first boat and even though we were standing on our seats, rather precariously, we had a limited view. I then spotted a gap in the grass to the left end, nearest to where I was standing. I asked the couples in front of me if they could see the baby through the gap and they could. So I climbed aboard their boat and ended up standing on the bow, somewhat nervously, and managed to catch a quick glimpse of the baby's eye, and see it staring back at me! So cute! It was worth all the cold, wet suffering and we were elated when we were heading back. That didn't last for too long, as we were still some distance from our resort and due to the delay watching the elephants, we were going to be late. Darkness was fast approaching and navigating the river, with debris floating down in the opposite direction, was a challenge. By debris I mean tree trunks and branches! With all the rain that they'd been experiencing, the river was a lot higher than usual! Eventually it was pitch black and the boat was silent. Every single one of us was wondering if our driver had a torch. Thankfully he did, though not incredibly powerful. He was an experienced old man and clearly knew the river well, so with one hand at the helm and the other on the torch shining on the water just in front of us, we slowly made our way back to the resort and the rest of our group, and a very worried/relieved tour guide!

 

4) Snorkelling - I've only done it a few times before in Australia, so I'm definitely a novice. The first place we went was around the islands of KK (Kota Kinabalu) and the guide took us to a dive sight where they know sharks like to go. Everyone else was all excited. My first reaction was 'really?' I was more than a little nervous. When I got in the water it took me quite a few minutes to let my heart rate slow down and get into a pattern of breathing calming and deeply through the snorkel, whilst wearing the mask. It's so unfamiliar and weird, but I managed it eventually and then I was able to swim around. We were close to the island, so it wasn't particularly deep in places, so it didn't feel like we were too far away from the rocks and reef. The reef was quite young and not especially colourful, and as I'm sure you all know, the coral reefs around the world are suffering/dying. The fish, however, were beautiful and amazing! I had my Go Pro with me and took lots of footage. Some fish were very colourful, like the parrotfish. One was bigger than the size of a plate, but vertically tall and thin, not horizontal and flat. It was mainly yellow with a few black stripes near the front and back. I’ve not managed to find out the type yet! I watched it for ages. At one point I realised that not all the fish were below me, but that some were much closer to the surface. I saw black and white stripy ones, and long thin translucent ones. They were all very quick to swim away from you as you approached, which in a way was reassuring! It was very easy to loose your bearings from the boat and every now and then I would surface and just make sure I hadn't wondered off too far. After quite some time, I was starting to tire, so I began to edge closer to the boat and into slightly deeper waters. I was busy looking at the fish closer to me and then I saw something larger about 6m away or so. I remember thinking that's a large fish. Then I realised it was a shark! Luckily, I remained pretty calm. It came into sight and swam away pretty quickly. I surfaced, as we'd been instructed, and called out 'shark!' and one other of our group had spotted it too, but the others didn't. We all had a good laugh afterwards as I swam away in the opposite direction from where I'd seen it and everyone else was headed towards it! I went snorkelling a second time off the beach at Turtle Island. It was very shallow so even better for watching the fish and once again I had a fabulous experience. No sharks, thankfully, but I did see a huge fish over 2 feet long, which was really box like, wide and fat at the head and tapered down towards the tail. It looked a bit like a spotted porcupine fish, but I’m not sure! There were lots of baby fish close to the shore, barely even the size of my little fingernail, which were so cute. The other highlight here was swimming alongside a school of fish - utterly amazing!

 

3) Proboscis Monkeys - they're the ones with the really big nose! They're not the most attractive of the primates, but they're quite adorable all the same and aside from getting some great shots when we went to visit the sanctuary at Labuk Bay, seeing them in the wild was far more satisfying and enjoyable. The Kinabatangan River is the place to see them and there were quite a few large troops along the river. We saw them every time we were out on the boats, virtually. One time we even saw a pair mating. It was over in seconds! The problem with those sightings was that it was usually raining or dusk, so they were hard to photograph.

 

2) Turtle Island - this is a protected island where Green Turtles come to lay their eggs and we were able to witness the workings of the conservation project. It was one of the things I really wanted to do, ever since I saw a programme about this very island. Even though I didn't book it until I got to Borneo, I'm so glad I had the opportunity and had such an amazing experience. Mostly things happen at night there, so you get to relax during the day, snorkel etc. That evening I got to witness a female laying her eggs, we then saw how the rangers bury the eggs in the hatcheries to protect them from their predators (mostly large monitor lizards). I was also lucky enough to see the eruption of baby turtles coming out of the sand, though it was pretty dark at the time! Then all the hatchlings from that evening were taken down onto the beach and released, so they could make their way down to the water. Every now and then we had to give them a gentle nudge to guide them in the right direction. It was amazing to see. That was all part of the programme. What wasn't part of the programme were the extra things that happened. For instance, one baby hatchling, that had either been left behind from the night before, or was an early riser, was stranded in the hatchery in the early evening, trying to get out. My tour guide (I had my own personal one) pointed it out to me. Everyone else had walked by without noticing it! It was so adorable! I was very surprised when one of the men working there came along and picked it up and let me hold it. They’re not supposed to do that and I hadn’t asked! Whilst I felt bad about it, feeling as though we should keep a respectful distance from wildlife, on the other hand, how could I not be totally mesmerised by the tiny little creature calmly sitting in my open palm. Occasionally, its flippers would flap, trying to move. I didn’t hold it for very long, and it was then placed inside a hatchery, ready for release later that evening. Another loner was found the following morning too, and this time one of the guides and a family, plus me, went down to the beach and we put it down on the sand, and in the daylight, we were able to see it scuttle down to the water, directly, and watch it swim away. I hope it survived the first stage of its life. What's so amazing is that they don't return to the island of their birth until years later when they're ready to lay their own eggs! As if that weren’t enough excitement for one 24 hour period, more happened that morning. I got up early enough to watch the sunrise, but there was a curfew on the beach from 6pm to 6am, because that’s when the turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. I went down to the beach at 6am where we'd snorkelled and my friends and I saw two green turtles that had come ashore and were heading back down to the water. They were pretty big, probably between 2 and 3 feet long. It was such a privilege to watch them, in the daylight. Each turtle we saw safely made their escape to the water and swam away. One of the girls in our group expressed concern about how close the rangers let our group get to the mother's face, after she'd laid her eggs. She'd said in Australia you have to keep your distance and they're really strict about it. I daresay there are some improvements they could make in how they manage the project. We were also specifically told not to take video and not to use flash (especially when the hatchlings are trying to find their way to the water) and yet there were still people who ignored what they’d been told! Overall, though, it was an amazing experience and surpassed my expectations!

 

1) Orangutans - of course the main reason I went to Borneo was to see the orangutans in the wild! First, half way through the trip, we went to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, which I knew lots about, having seen a programme all about it back home (Orangutan Diaries). They do a great job there, rehabilitating the orangutans into the wild. They have a nursery with all the youngsters, trying to teach them all they need to learn about foraging for food and climbing. They have some older ones to help them learn the ropes, so to speak. The orangutans in the nursery stay at the facilities overnight, but all those that have been released into the wild, live in the conservation area adjacent to the sanctuary. They run two feedings a day, at 10am and 3pm, and food is put out on a platform. The orangutans can chose to come along and eat the food or not, so there's no guarantee of a sighting. In fact, like I mentioned before, when we first went, we didn't see any in the morning feeding because of all the macaques, but we went back in the afternoon, when there were fewer people, and we weren't disappointed. About 5 came along at various times. The younger ones were quick to get out of the way of the older ones, but no sign of a male with its flanged cheek pads. We all left pretty happy. Going to Danum Valley was going to be one of our best chances to see one in the wild (there were two other places we'd seen nests but never saw the orangutan - at the river and also at Gomantong Caves). You'll never believe it when I tell you that on our first walk, within 15 minutes of walking along the road, we heard the call that a flanged male had been seen. He climbed a tall tree not far from the road and so we headed into the jungle to try and catch a glimpse of him - his name was Mike! (There are researchers in the area who track the orangutans and record their movements etc). Well we got to see him, high above us. It wasn't easy because the jungle is so dense and a few of the group never really got a good photo/view. Naturally, they were more than a little disappointed and I was disappointed for them. We made sure they were up front in the group whenever we went out again. There were no sightings the next day, but on our final morning, Mike made an appearance again. We found his overnight nest and we stayed and waited to watch what happened. This was when many gave up and went back to have breakfast. But some of us asked to stay behind and watch for longer. Since one of our guides was with us, this was ok. We didn't get great glimpses, but patiently we waited and eventually we were rewarded. Mike started to move about in the top of the tree and feed. I got a really stiff neck from looking up so much. Well, as it turned out, since he was in a tree so close to the road, as we were driving out of the area, all of our group stopped to see him and this time, now that it was a bit later, he was more visible. One of the guides had a telescope for us to look through and people were taking photos with their phones through it. I managed to get a fabulous video of him, so I'm happy. It was difficult to get a good photo with my camera as he was so high above us and partially obscured by the leaves and branches. We were so lucky to even see one in the wild, and a flanged male at that (big cheek pads)! At this point I ought to add that a few of us had the leech experience as a result of going into the jungle to see the orangutan. I tried to brush off one of the girls legs, and it wasn't having any of it and instead managed to squirm its way though the material of her trousers, inside! That's why you want to wear leech socks, which I did, up to above my knees, and spray yourself with insect repellent. Well, I thought I was safe, but oh no! One obviously got onto my camera bag and made it into my room, more specifically onto my bed. My roommate and I carefully de-leeched ourselves in the hallway, making sure none were on us or our clothes (I forgot to check my camera bag). I had a shower and got dressed and had been milling about the bed when suddenly I felt a pain in the back of my knee. Instantly, I knew exactly what it was! I've never dropped my trousers so quickly! Luckily, I was prepared (of course) and had some little sachets of salt with me, so I grabbed one and my roommate poured the salt onto the leech and it came off. Ewwwwh!

 

At the end of the tour, everyone else went home or had onward travel plans, but I had a few extra days. After my overnight stay on Turtle Island I decided not to stay in the city for my last day, but instead return to Sepilok for one final visit to the Orangutan Sanctuary. It was only 30 minutes away from the city and a taxi was so cheap (everything was). I stayed the night at the jungle resort once again, enjoying being back near the jungle rather than the city! No two days are ever the same at the sanctuary and I'm so glad I went back as I got to experience even more. In the morning I got to see two orangutans up close as they were walking along the boardwalk to go to the feeding platform. Later, after the feeding, I also spotted two youngsters playing in the trees very near the boardwalk, once again, with just a handful of people to witness the moment. I’d never expected to have such close sightings. At the morning feeding a mother orangutan turned up with her little one. Whilst she would have been rehabilitated, this little youngster was born in the wild - evidence that the programme is working. I discovered this is in fact her second or third off spring and the previous ones don't come to the platform anymore, so they've learned to fend for themselves in the wild, which this little one will hopefully learn to do too. The afternoon feeding was much more quiet this time, with only a handful of orangutans coming to eat, so I went back to the nursery. The youngsters were fun to watch. Yet again, I got to see another female orangutan with an even younger baby, who was still clinging on to mum for most of the time. She just came in from the jungle to visit the nursery and wasn't a resident, as such, so another rehabilitated mum with her wild off spring. I watched the pair of them for ages, completely mesmerised. We were being told to leave eventually as it was closing time and I was torn away. What wonderful memories to leave with! Borneo didn't disappoint!

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