Our bus from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Our bus from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion

Kinabantangan.  That’s a mouthful but it rolls off the tounge once you get used to it.  It’s the name of a river in northern Sabah that has recently been protected as a wildlife refuge.  It is indeed chock full of animals but the underlying reason is a bit sad.

Soon after we left the highlands around Kinabalu the land flattened out and we rode through endless fields of palm trees.  Malaysia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil and much of it comes from Sabah.  As the demand for palm oil rose over the last century the rainforests of Sabah were cleared to make room for massive palm oil plantations.  One of the few areas untouched by this development was the sliver of land carved out by the Kinabatangan River.

We arranged a three-day, two-night trip with the Greenview B&B in Sukau, a little village along the river.  The tour included all meals, transport from Sandakan, accommodation and a smattering of boat tours and hikes.

Day 1 of the trip included a boat cruise in the late afternoon.  We motored along the river for a while and spotted a few hornbills flying about.  Eventually we turned down a narrow canal that emptied into the river.  It wasn’t long before we started to see monkeys – lots of monkeys.  The most common were macaques (both the long-tail and pig-tail variety) but the most popular among us tourists were the proboscis monkeys.  Proboscis monkeys, specifically the dominant males, have a nose of cartoon proportions that photographs well.

A male proboscis monkey.  The most famous nose in Borneo.
A male proboscis monkey. The most famous nose in Borneo.

After a long while staring at the monkeys, our boat driver received a call on his cell phone.  Yeah, we weren’t exactly way out in the wilderness.  Regardless, the phone call was to inform him that some of the area’s pygmy elephants had been spotted nearby.  I can’t say that I have received a phone call about elephants but it seemed like an everyday thing for the guides.  We sped off down the canal at a rate which  made me feel sorry for the other tourists who were just arriving.

A family of proboscis monkeys
A family of proboscis monkeys

Closer to the village we pulled up along the bank and saw some of the trees and bushes moving around.  Inside the guide promised were “some” elephants.  A short while later we heard the distinctive trumpeting of an elephant.  There was a rather large group of them in the forest but we could only see a few that were nearest the river bank.  Apparently, we were lucky to see them at all and they are definitely one of the rarest mammals we’ve seen in the wild – only a few thousand individuals are estimated to remain.  As adults they only stand about 2 meters tall, much smaller than normal elephants.

Borneo pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants

After a buffet dinner back at the B&B we went on a night boat ride.  We spotted quite a few owls, a reticulated python and a few kingfishers.  Photography was pretty tough but the guide’s spotlight helped us get a few good shots.

Reticulated python
Reticulated python

The next morning we rose early and took another boat ride.  Some eagles were out fishing in the river and we passed a “school boat” filled with kids on their way to school.  A short while later we got another glimpse of the pygmy elephants, this time it was an immature female.

Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Rollie-pollie bug...the size of a ping pong ball!
Rollie-pollie bug…the size of a ping pong ball!

We stopped at one point and went on a short hike through the jungle and found a number of huge insects.  When I think of a rollie-pollie I think of a small insect the size of a pencil eraser.  In Borneo, their rollie-pollies are the size of ping pong balls!  We also spotted some nicely camouflaged insects like this leaf bug.

A leaf bug
A leaf bug

All of the tourist material about the Borneo jungle gives some information about the leeches.  Fortunately for us, our visit was well-timed during the dry season and they are much less active.  We only saw one during our stay and it was happily attached to the back of one of the other tourists staying at our B&B.  Despite their vile reputation, apparently the leeches in this area really aren’t all that dangerous as they don’t host diseases like mosquitoes.  Nevertheless, I was happy not to have been bitten!

Night walk through the jungle
Night walk through the jungle

On our second night of the tour we completed a nighttime hike through the jungle behind the B&B.  We wore waterproof boots to deal with the muck and very slowly made our way through the jungle.   Thorny vines were the main bother and the mosquitoes really weren’t all that bad.

We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk

Overall we were only moderately impressed with the tour.  Then again, we have both been on some really good boat tours on this trip so the competition is a bit steep.  Being able to see the pygmy elephants in the wild was certainly the highlight for both of us.  Both the guidebooks and the local tourist literature flaunt the Kinabatangan as a haven for bird spotting but our tour, and I suspect many of the competing outfits, are just not setup for this kind of tourism.  There are simply too many people visiting a very small area of land.  This aspect of the tour left me disappointed.

Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan

The biggest take-away for me from these three days was the environmental impact of the palm oil industry.  What this industry has done to the landscape of Borneo is very sad and I will certainly be more conscious in the future when I see products at the store containing palm oil.

Kinabatangan River
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
After about an hour I concluded that this lifevest was far more valuable as a cushion than as a floatation device.
After about an hour I concluded that this lifevest was far more valuable as a cushion than as a floatation device.
Hornbills
Hornbills
A male proboscis monkey.  The most famous nose in Borneo.
A male proboscis monkey. The most famous nose in Borneo.
Oriental Darter
Oriental Darter
A family of proboscis monkeys
A family of proboscis monkeys
A female proboscis and her child
A female proboscis and her child
Bornean pygmy elephants
Bornean pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants
“The Lion King Photo” according to a Dutch guy on our tour.
“The Lion King Photo” according to a Dutch guy on our tour.
Plenty of geckos around our guest house
Plenty of geckos around our guest house
Reticulated python
Reticulated python
Kingfisher, the smallest species in Borneo I was told.
Kingfisher, the smallest species in Borneo I was told.
Early morning sighting of a red-haired monkey
Early morning sighting of a red-haired monkey
Boat cruise at dawn
Boat cruise at dawn
It's the school boat!
It’s the school boat!
Pygmy elephants again, this is an immature female.
Pygmy elephants again, this is an immature female.
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Oriental darters
Oriental darters
Water monitor lizard - about 5ft long
Water monitor lizard – about 5ft long
Rollie-pollie bug...the size of a ping pong ball!
Rollie-pollie bug…the size of a ping pong ball!
A large hive of bees
A large hive of bees
A leaf bug
A leaf bug
It looks like smoke but it is actually fungi spores coming out of a log.
It looks like smoke but it is actually fungi spores coming out of a log.
Elephant ear - a type of fungus.  Literally the size of an elephant's ear.
Elephant ear – a type of fungus. Literally the size of an elephant’s ear.
A walking stick
A walking stick
Proboscis monkey
Proboscis monkey
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
A quick glimpse of a very shy otter
A quick glimpse of a very shy otter
Night walk through the jungle
Night walk through the jungle
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk

Orangutans!

Asia, Malaysia Comments Off
Aug 162011
Central Sandakan's weekly market
Central Sandakan’s weekly market

Making our way from Kinabalu National Park over to Sandakan on Sabah’s northern coast was pretty easy.  We rose early and took a taxi from the lodge down to the highway and then waited for one of the KK-to-Sandakan buses to come down the highway.  The 4-hour ride came to 40 ringgit (about US$14) for a nice air-con bus with horrible movies blaring away.  Just as we were approaching Sandakan I caught sight of another fine example of Malaysia traffic circle ornamentation.  Behold:

Another fine example of Malaysian traffic circle decor.
Another fine example of Malaysian traffic circle decor.

The May Fair Inn in Sandakan was recommended by the Lonely Planet and we soon found out why.  It was located smack bang in the center of town and for RM50 (about US$17) we got a nice room complete with private bath, a very capable air con unit, a flat-screen TV, a DVD player as well as free reign over the proprietor’s absolutely massive collection of DVDs.  The owner even had the DVDs sorted into enticing categories such as “Stallone Movies”, “Van Damme Movies”, and “Giant Animals.”  We didn’t end up watching any while we were there but the room was spotless and had good lighting, loads of power outlets and a nice clothesline pre-strung in the bathroom for our laundry.

One of our best-value rooms to date.  May Fair Inn, Sandakan
One of our best-value rooms to date. May Fair Inn, Sandakan

Sandakan is a nice enough town but most people stay there in order to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre which is a dozen or so kilometers outside of town.  After a hearty breakfast at a vegetarian Chinese place in the center we hopped on one of the local buses bound for Sepilok in order to make the morning feeding.

The center takes in orangutans and trains them so that they can survive in the wild.  The incoming apes are a mix of ones that were being kept illegally as pets and of ones that were orphaned.  We learned that on average it takes the center about 10 years to rehabilitate one of the apes.  A very expensive endeavor!

When a new orangutan arrives at the center, the staff performs rigorous medical checks and nurses the animal back to health.  Many of the animals that have been in captivity since they were very young lack even the most basic skills needed to survive in the wild – being able to climb, for example.  Over time, they slowly learn these skills from other apes at the center and from the human trainers.

Eventually, the orangutans are allowed to explore the nearby jungle, however, their dependency on humans tends to keep them nearby.  The center has set up a number of feeding platforms that reach further and further into the jungle and they use these to draw the apes into the wilderness.  Many of the individuals go completely wild and others remain semi-dependent for the rest of their lives.

Long beans, sweet potatos and, most expectedly, bananas were on the menu.
Long beans, sweet potatos and, most expectedly, bananas were on the menu.

It was ridiculously hot when we went out for the morning feeding.  High temperatures, high humidity, still air and direct sunlight made it a rather sweaty experience but we got to see some giant apes!  Aside from their striking human similarities, I really enjoyed watching them multi-task.  Eating, carrying two handfuls (or is that footfuls?) of extra food all while hanging from a rope?  No problem if you are an orangutan!

Another highlight was that one of the apes showed up with its baby.  Apparently it is common for rehabilitated apes to return to the center for food once they have reared a child.

Items of note: bananas in left hand, sweet potato in mouth and right foot, more bananas in left foot, baby attached at waist.
Items of note: bananas in left hand, sweet potato in mouth and right foot, more bananas in left foot, baby attached at waist.

Orangutans aren’t the only primates that you get to see at the center.  During the feeding some of the local macaques like to come in and steal some food for themselves.  Surprisingly the orangutans don’t seem to care all that much.  I saw one of the younger males take a swat at a macaque but other than that they seemed to coexist.  The macaques certainly know to keep their distance though!

The bandits (macaques) raiding the food.
The bandits (macaques) raiding the food.

After the feeding we walked over to the Rainforest Discovery Center which is an independently run park.  I thought it would be a bit swamped with people who were waiting for the afternoon orangutan feeding but it was surprisingly quiet.  After a stroll through the botanical garden we headed out on one of the many trails that lead off into the preserve.

The highlight of the park are the observation towers that you can climb to get a better look at the forest canopy.  They also have a number of canopy walkways strung up between the trees to get from tower to tower.  We saw a few birds there, including our first hornbill, but midday really isn’t the best of times for bird watching so the pickings were a little slim.  Overall, I really enjoyed the Rainforest Discovery Center and I would like to go back sometime either early or late in the day to better enjoy the trails and bird life.  As always, there are plenty more pictures in the thumbnails below.

Orangutans
Another fine example of Malaysian traffic circle decor.
Another fine example of Malaysian traffic circle decor.
Central Sandakan's weekly market
Central Sandakan’s weekly market
One of our best-value rooms to date.  May Fair Inn, Sandakan
One of our best-value rooms to date. May Fair Inn, Sandakan
Enjoying the views over Sandakan
Enjoying the views over Sandakan
Starting the day with noodles and satay.
Starting the day with noodles and satay.
A pig-tailed macaque coming in to steal some food.
A pig-tailed macaque coming in to steal some food.
Long beans, sweet potatos and, most expectedly, bananas were on the menu.
Long beans, sweet potatos and, most expectedly, bananas were on the menu.
Items of note: bananas in left hand, sweet potato in mouth and right foot, more bananas in left foot, baby attached at waist.
Items of note: bananas in left hand, sweet potato in mouth and right foot, more bananas in left foot, baby attached at waist.
The bandits (macaques) raiding the food.
The bandits (macaques) raiding the food.
Eating on the run
Eating on the run
An adult male
An adult male
Pitcher plants
Pitcher plants
Hornbill, very far away
Hornbill, very far away
A well-camoflauged lizard
A well-camoflauged lizard
The view from one of the observation towers
The view from one of the observation towers
This is the girly drink I ended up with that evening.  Tasted like bubblegum with a bit of milk and tapioca pearls at the bottom.
This is the girly drink I ended up with that evening. Tasted like bubblegum with a bit of milk and tapioca pearls at the bottom.


Aug 152011
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!

After a couple of well-spent days in Kota Kinabalu we pushed west to the biggest attraction on Borneo: Mount Kinabalu.  The mountain, one of SE Asia’s highest, tops out at 13,435ft (4,095m) and this is made even more impressive by the fact that there aren’t any other peaks of comparable size in the area.  A short two-hour van ride was all that was needed to reach the park from KK.

Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.
Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.

Climbing the mountain is why many tourists visit Borneo but Amy and I were quickly turned-off to that idea because of the cost and because neither of us really fancied a two or three day slog up the mountain.  After paying for permits, guides and accommodations we were looking at around US$300 per person for the climb.  Instead, we stuck to the trails around the base of the mountain which still gave us a nice taste of the local wildlife.

Kinabalu Mountain Lodge - our digs for two nights
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge – our digs for two nights

For sleeping arrangements, we stayed at the Kinabalu Mountain which is about 2km from the park entrance.  Inside the park there are a whole range of accommodations that were just above our price range.   Rather recently a hospitality company secured an exclusive contract covering all the in-park housing and dining options and this seems to have driven prices up drastically.  Even the cheaper restaurant in the park was charging RM50 (about $17) for a barely passable lunch buffet!  No thanks.

Despite the hordes of climbers buzzing around park HQ all day, it was surprisingly easy to get away from everyone by hiking some of the lesser-known trails in the immediate vicinity.  We had read that there was a very informative guided tour led on some of these trails.  Honestly though, we were quite disappointed.  The walk was very brief (40 minutes) and the tour group was quite large.  Hiking on our own was a much better.

In addition to hiking around the park, I found some great bird watching right at our lodge.  The  lodge has a nice big front porch that overlooks the valley and all sorts of birds pass through at various times of day.  I didn’t do so well with identifying them but I did manage to capture photos of a few.

One hungry ashy drongo baby
One hungry ashy drongo baby

The evenings at the lodge were also quite entertaining.  As soon as the sun goes down all sorts of insects wake up and start their day.  I saw dozens of different types of moths as well as a few different giant beetles.  I have never seen such huge insects before!

The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”
The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”


Mount Kinabalu
Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.
Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge - our digs for two nights
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge – our digs for two nights
View from the Kinabalu Mountain Lodge
View from the Kinabalu Mountain Lodge
They have some big bugs in these parts!
They have some big bugs in these parts!
A big walking stick hanging out at the visitor center.  Close to a foot long.
A big walking stick hanging out at the visitor center. Close to a foot long.
The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”
The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”
Vines the circumference of a volleyball
Vines the circumference of a volleyball
One has to be careful of these while hiking.  Some locals make bat traps out of these things!
One has to be careful of these while hiking. Some locals make bat traps out of these things!
Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus  leucophaeus)
Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus)
One hungry ashy drongo baby
One hungry ashy drongo baby
Broadbeak?
Broadbeak?
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!
Fog rolls in from time to time.
Fog rolls in from time to time.


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