Malaysian Borneo – Sabah

We’ve spent the last week or so in the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah, a so called natural theme park. We flew into the small town of Sandakan near the Eastern edge of the state, and as we came into land we could only see jungle stretching as far as the eye could Borneo looked as I had imagined with dense jungle stretching as far as the eye could see. From the airport we took a taxi about 25km west to the small area of Sepilok, where we stayed overnight at the Uncle Tan’s hostel. We had booked onto a 3 day 2 night wildlife safari with Uncle Tan’s along the Kinabatangan River starting the next day and so having had a restless night at Kuala Lumpur airport we relaxed for the rest of the day.

Our tour started at the Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary, which rehabilitates orphaned babies back into the wild. The apes are not kept in cages but the sanctuary is setup in a protected area of jungle, of course the Orang-utans are very used to human contact so we were able to get very close to them.

The Orang-utans are very hard to spot as they gracefully swing through the jungle canopy, unlike monkeys which jump and screech their way through the jungle. However at feeding time three Orang-utans came out of the jungle to the platform where park rangers had laid of food for them.

The rangers stayed nearby to guard the food from the cheeky long-tailed Macaques that were looking for a free feed – as soon as the Orang-utans were finished the rangers moved away and the platform was invaded!

The sanctuary has an interesting information centre where we learnt about the work they undertake as well as the Orang-utans, which, as is easy to see from their mannerisms, share 96% of the genes of humans. Orang-utans are only found in Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, sadly their existence is threatened by the destruction of their habitats to make way for palm tree plantations to supply palm oil. On our travels through Borneo we were sad to see that there are many palm tree forests. It was a touristy experience at the sanctuary but nevertheless enjoyable and interesting, and we were happy to support the good work they are doing there.

During the wildlife tour we stayed in a jungle camp somewhere in the Borneo jungle on the banks of the muddy brown Kinabatangan River. To get to the camp it was an hour and a half bumpy minibus ride from Sandakan to the river and then an hour cruise upstream in an open motorboat – we were literally in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately during our journey to the camp the heavens opened and we got soaked, the only time in the three days!

We were glad to get into the shelter of the camp and were pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t as basic as we had expected, it was basic but they had electricity and running water which offered a few home comforts! The camp is staffed by 20-30 locals who are all really friendly and good fun – especially the affable chef Lan. Considering the facilities and difficulties of the jungle the food was varied and excellent – river crab curry anyone?!

The river is something of a sanctuary for the animals that as a result of the logging and palm-oil industries have been forced to seek refuge along the rivers flood plains. The camp was the perfect base from which to embark on river cruises to get close to some of Borneo’s wildlife, and there were three cruises a day to give us the maximum chance of seeing it – dawn, dusk, and night with a spot light – in the day the heat of the sun makes the animals quite docile.

All the cruises were different and we saw different animals each time. Our first tour was at night and we found Kingfishers sleeping on branches, a baby crocodile, and this owl staring down at us from the branches overhanging the river.

The misty dawn cruise was a good time to see the rivers birdlife, including kingfishers, egrets, hornbills, and sea eagles soaring over the river. We also saw a group of Gibbons, apes that are in the same family as Orang-utans, swinging through the trees. On all the cruises there were plenty of Macaques to entertain us with their monkey antics. The zoom lens came in handy 🙂

The best cruise though was in the late afternoon with the setting sun providing a lovely light over the jungle. Sadly, despite a through search, we didn’t see an Orang-utan but we did find a group of Proboscis Monkeys – big nosed monkeys that are unique to Borneo. The alpha male, the bigger nose the better apparently, sat high up in the tree on the lookout for predators whilst his group hung out in the branches below.

The sunset over the river and jungle was great!

As well as the cruises we did some jungle trekking, one in the day and another at night. The day trek just got us hot and sweaty and up close to lots of bugs – millipedes, centipedes, spiders, scorpions, and fire ants – Lisa liked to hold most of these, but I preferred not too! The night trek around the camp perimeter was better as we found frogs, bats, and sleeping birds that would let us get very close to them (they can’t see in the dark so were forced to sit still and ignore us).

We slept in basic wooden huts on mattresses covered with a mosquito net, sleeping wasn’t easy with the sounds of the jungle – we knew there were rats, snakes, spiders, etc crawling all around us!

After two nights and three days in the sweaty jungle (without a shower) we were ready for civilisation again! It was a really good tour, and we met a nice group of fellow travellers, and I would definitely recommend a trip on the Kinabatangan River if you come to Borneo.

After the tour, and a much needed shower, we took a bus from Sepilok about four hours west to the base of Mt. Kinabula, which at 4095m is South East Asias tallest mountain. We stayed in a nice hostel near the entrance to the national park that surrounds the mountain and were pleased that it was quite a bit cooler as we were at 1500m – we had a great night’s sleep.

Many people come to Borneo just to climb the mountain and the limited daily permits for the summit trail get booked up way in advance, therefore we expected that we would not be able to do the climb. However never trust the Lonely Planet as on enquiry at the park office we were soon booked in to do the climb the following day! We did a warm up trek on the 6km Liwagu trail through the jungle at the base of mountain, nice until some horsefly type things ravaged us and I lost of camera lens cap in a fast flowing stream!

Next morning we met up with our guide, Frederick (or maybe Patrick it seemed to change!), around 7:30am and a French guy, Boris, who asked if he could join our group to split the guide fees (no problem – climbing the mountain isn’t cheap!). We then drove up to the start of the summit trail and set off carrying as many warm clothes as we could find – we had to buy two second hand jackets for 5 quid each as we only have summer clothes with us! The trail is just over 8.5km to the summit but with over 2000m to ascend it is a steep climb, almost every step is uphill, on some of the biggest steps I have seen – not so bad on the way up but a killer on the way down.

Of course we hadn’t done any training for the climb so it was tough going but we slowly plodded our way up, stopping regularly for breaks at the shelters along the trail. The world record to climb and descend the mountain is 2 hours 37 mins (respect!) but it took us four sweaty hours to reach the climbers hostel, Laban Rata, which is 6km along the trail at 3273m.

This place was a real luxury (how we would of loved this during our ascent of Kilimanjaro!) with a restaurant, showers, and enough beds to sleep 150 people. Not cheap at nearly 100 quid a night, but then the only way to supply the hostel is a by the impressive porters who undertake the trail with some very heavy loads!

We arrived at the hostel around 1pm and were due to set off for the summit at 2:30am, so we spent the afternoon preparing for the climb ahead by eating and sleeping. We managed to get a good four hours of sleep and the adrenaline was pumping as we set off into the dark following Frederick on the trail to the summit. It wasn’t as cold as we expected (5-10 degrees) and it was a lovely clear night’s sky with giving us a great view of the stars and the long line of climbers head-torches on the trail ahead of us. As we got above the tree line we could see the lights of the settlements below, most notably the large city of Kota Kinabula 100km away on the coast.

The final kilometre was scramble up the granite dome of the summit using a rope as a route marker and support. We arrived at the summit at 4:45am about 30 minutes before the first rays of light of the day.

Now sitting still and open to a chilly breeze the cold kicked in, the five quid jackets were well worth the investment, and predictably worst affected were Lisa’s feet! It wasn’t too bad though and the rising sun distracted us as we witnessed a breathtaking sunrise over Borneo.

After about an hour at the top our feet were pretty numb and we started the descent.

Of course climbing the mountain is only half of the challenge and what goes up must come down. With the light we could now see how steep the trail was and it was arguably harder going down than coming up!

After negotiating the summit ropes we were back down at the hostel having breakfast (it felt more like lunch and noodles felt right for a change!) by 8am. Then came the nasty bit, 6km and a 2000m decent over those knee jarring steps. The first 3km were ok but the last 3km were a real chore and the going was slow!

It took us four hours to get to the bottom of the trail from the hostel, tired but nevertheless very happy to have completed the Mt. Kinabula challenge!

After a decent buffet lunch at the park gate we took a bus to Kota Kinabula (the main town in Sabah) and after a welcome shower literally crashed out – it had been a long long day of walking!
Next morning we found our legs had ceased up and we could barely walk! A couple of days of R&R was in order so on the advice of some fellow backpackers headed to the ‘tip of Borneo’ about 3 hours drive in a shared taxi north of Kota Kinabula, near the town of Kudat.

We stayed in a traditional Borneo longhouse owned by a British expat, Howard from Stratford-upon-Avon(!), near the beach. A basic hut, which is normally shared by many families but in this case is a backpacker retreat!

With little to do except relax on the beautiful beaches and take in the view (we could see the Philippines) it was the perfect place to rest our legs and enjoy the sunshine with a book and the sunsets were glorious.

Now we are back in Kota Kinabula feeling rested although still finding it hard to walk down steps, but ready for the next adventure – which is a ferry ride tomorrow to Brunei, the only country that exists only on Borneo. After that we’ll head into the southern state of Sarawak where we’ll head back into the jungle and hopefully find us an Orang-utan!

There are lots and lots of photos from our Borneo adventures here.

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