Report from Borneo (continued)
Up really early to catch the first flight of the day from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan so that we would be in time for the feeding of the orang-utans at Sepilok. We were picked up from the Hotel by the tour bus and transferred to the airport in plenty of time for our 07.00 hrs flight. We could see that we were going to have fabulously clear weather for the flight, so requested seats on the port side of the plane (that’s the left side for those unused to the “proper” terminology!!). We knew that the plane would allow us excellent views of Mt Kinabalu shortly after take-off. We were not disappointed. It was so clear we were able to imagine being there, and also so close to the summit that we strained to see if others were on the mountain experiencing the same sunrise over the mountain that we had from the plane. It was one of the best views of the mountain that we could imagine having without actually being there.
The flight to Sandakan is fairly short – 40 mins is hardly time enough to serve an juice to the passengers on the flight. We were met at Sandakan airport by our Guide for the next couple of days- Donald. We firstly headed in to the Renaissance Hotel in Sandakan [Now known as the Sabah Hotel – Ed] to pick up a couple of others who were joining us for the tour. There was also a late arrival (isn’t it amazing how there is always at least one “late arrival” wherever you go?), so we were held up for a little longer than was originally anticipated, although it gave us a little time to have a bit of a look around the Hotel – I had actually stayed there once before, and was really happy with it. It is located about 2 km from the centre of town on top of the hill in quite a picturesque location. The facilities are good – the main restaurant area beside the swimming pool is very pretty.
Sabah Hotel (former Renaissance)
We finally got under way. It is only about a 20 min trip to Sepilok, and we arrived in time for a video presentation on orang-utans and the work that is done in Sepilok in the rehabilitation of the orang-utans back into the wild.
Mother and baby
After the video, we all headed off into the sanctuary area. Since my first visit here they have constructed boardwalks to take you into the forest. The last time we were here the area was under a bit of water. From what I have heard, it was a common problem, so the boardwalks were constructed. On the way in, we came across a mother orang-utan and her new baby – they were just walking along the boardwalk towards the feeding platform. The baby could only have been a matter of weeks old. They did not appear to be intimidated by the presence of humans, but on the other hand, the mother was intent on getting to the feeding area in time for the food, and was not interested in stopping for photographs. It was interesting to watch her with the baby. The baby clung on to her front. At one stage she hopped up onto the railing along the edge of the boardwalk – an effortless movement, even though the baby was with her. We got to the viewing area of the feeding platform in time to see the mother and baby jump down on to the forest floor and then continue up on to the feeding platform with the other orang-utans. You can really just stand and watch in amazement as they all move about. It is also apparent that they all know when food will be served. You can see the orang-utans coming in through the forest – they grab some bananas and some of the liquid mixture, hang around for a little while, perhaps on the climbing ropes, then disappear back into the jungle. I am sure that if they were to stay for the day, all the visitors to the centre would be there for the day too.
A lot of photos are taken by the tourists, but I would be surprised if many turned out to be anything of any consequence. It is actually deceptively dark in the forest – even though we were using 400 ASA film, in many instances the light was insufficient to allow a fast enough shutter speed. The other problem of course is that you need a telephoto lens to be able to get close enough, and the lens will itself chew up a bit of the available light. Next time, we’ll try 800 ASA!!
Once finished at Sepilok, we headed off to Sukau and Sukau Rainforest Lodge where we were to spend the night. Sukau is about 150 km South-East of Sandakan – about a 2 hour drive on a mixture of bitumen and gravel/dirt road. The last 50 km on the gravel/dirt is not the most pleasant, but it is over fairly fast. [the trip from Sandakan to Sukau is now done by boat – ed]
Orang-utans at Sepilok
Entry and Main Building at Sukau Rainforest Lodge
We were dropped at a wharf on the bank of the Kinabatangan River in the little village of Sukau, and were then taken by boat to Sukau Rainforest Lodge, where we were greeted with a refreshing drink, and shown to our room.
The main building of the Lodge has been built in traditional style from local timbers, with the guest rooms located to the rear of the main building. The guest rooms are what would have to be described as fairly basic – each room has two single beds, with a fan in the ceiling, a couple of cabinets/shelf units for your belongings and bags, and a separate bathroom with toilet, shower and wash basin. Space is certainly at a premium in the room. We had even less space, as we had an extra mattress on the floor for my son. The rooms are connected with the main communal area by a long covered verandah. In retrospect, it does not matter much that the rooms are small as they are, because you really don’t spend much time in the room anyway – the room is designed for sleeping, and you should not have any problem doing that.
Most of the spare time you have is spent in the communal area, where you can read, play games, undertake other activities (they had a couple of people abseiling from a very large tree when we were there), or just walking around the grounds. Be sure to have a good quantity of mosquito repellent with you! Wildlife often comes into the property – particularly birds, including the hornbill.
After a late lunch served in the dining area, we had a little time to get to know the immediate vicinity, before heading off by boat to find the proboscis monkeys getting ready for the night.
The rear courtyard area at Sukau Rainforest Lodge
Jungle River Cruise
The tributary of the river is only a stones throw away from Sukau Rainforest Lodge, and it did not take us long before we were slowly heading up the river with our electric outboard motor purring in the background, in search of whatever wildlife we could find. We were not to be disappointed. The birds were quite prolific – many beautiful Kingfishers with brilliant blue on their bodies. We even saw at one stage a large hawk sitting in the top of a tree. At first we actually thought that it was a monkey, but on closer examination, determined that it looked nothing like a monkey, and could only be a bird. Just as we decided it was a bird, it spread its large wings as if to prove that we were all idiots. The boat drivers are really attuned to the environment. A number of times we would pull up and the boatman would point to something in a tree near the edge in the river. We would strain to see where it might be, before finally seeing it. One time he pointed out the tail of a lizard hanging down from a branch. It could have easily been a stick on the branch. Sure enough, we pulled up, and there was the lizard lying on the branch.
At about 17.00 hrs we were able to see the first group of proboscis monkeys making their way through the trees.
Some sit and munch on the fruit in the trees, or leaves, others thrash about in the trees. We watched for a while before moving on further up the river until we found another group on the move. It was a sight truly incredible to watch. They came down to the trees on the edge of the river, then gradually moved along the river, by jumping from tree to tree until they found a place where they were happy to spend the night. Although they jump from tree to tree, it is not as if they have any particular plan when they actually jump. It is more of a leap into the air, and hope like hell that there will be a branch or a tree trunk somewhere in close proximity at the end of the jump. It is apparently not unknown for them to miss a tree altogether and land in the river with a splash. It did not happen at all on this day, although a couple of them appeared to come close to falling. We must have watched this one group for about half and hour, gradually moving up the river with them, anticipating their next move so that we could get a better view of them. There was something mesmerizing about it. You just did not want to leave them. Finally, it appeared that they had found their place for the night, and although there was a little squabbling going on about who was going to sleep where, we headed off back down the river, and back to the lodge. It was close to sunset before we got back!
Long-tailed Macaque on the Kinabatangan
Again, photos prove difficult. In this instance, not only are you in a jungle environment, you are also contending with what sun there was, disappearing from the sky! An 800 ASA film would probably be ideal for this situation too. You may also be able to use a good flash with the 800 ASA, as the distances are not too great – a bit far for 400 ASA though.
A sumptuous dinner was served on the open air deck at the lodge, with candles at the tables. There was certainly plenty of good food to eat, and I am sure that none of the guests starved. After dinner, there was an informative slide show on birds and animals of the region, together with a bit of history of Sandakan and the surrounding area.
By 20.30 hrs, we were beat. Our escapade of the previous day, and almost total lack of sleep, had caught up with us – we were off to bed with the news that we would be woken at 05.30 hrs for a06.00 hr departure by boat to the Kelenanap Oxbow Lake, further down river.
We were woken about 05.30 hrs by a bunch of Gibbons. A knock on our door then indicated to us that it was time to get up for our trip to the ox bow lake. We were firstly provided with a cup of coffee to get us going, and then into the boat for the trip up the river. The Kinabatangan in the vicinity of Sukau is tidal, the water however is not particularly salty. It was an amazing site to see the numbers of logs which lay in the middle of the river. They apparently ebb and flow with the tide, tending to be washed out to the coast in flood periods. At times the boat had to weave its way carefully around the logs. It is a picturesque time of the morning to be on the river – the temperature of the water is actually slightly warmer than the air, and the fog rises gently above the water, so that everything takes on a slightly ghost- like appearance. As the sun warmed the air, the fog gradually disappeared.
Cruise to Kelenanap Ox Bow Lake
The birds of the area were up and about. We saw quite a number of hornbills in the tree tops, and flying around, however, they were always too far away for that “just perfect” photograph which you would love to be able to get. There were, however, many other water birds including snake birds and various cranes, egrets, sea eagles, herons and parakeets. After about 20 mins of travel on the main river we turned into a very small tributary to the river – so small that if you did not know it was there you could easily miss it. Once on the tributary, the jungle closed in around us, and we were able to take in the sounds of the jungle just beyond our sight. We were, however, to be disappointed. As we arrived at the entry to the lake, we found that the water hyacinth which has a prolific rate of growth, had in fact closed off the entry, There was about 15 metres of the weed between us and the main body of the lake, and there was no way that we were going to be able to cut our way through it without some serious effort, and of course, some decent tools. So we turned the boat around and headed back to base. We subsequently heard, about a week later, that the entry had been cleared and that the wildlife seen in and around the lake had been the highlight of the trip to Borneo for the people who told us about it. We’ll just have to come back again!
That is actually something about Borneo which a lot of people may have trouble coming to terms with. Although plans are made, it is not always possible for the particular programme to proceed in its entirety. Sometimes you have to accept that this is not a developed area, and that things do not always proceed with the clockwork efficiency of the Swiss or even the Japanese. The best way to handle a trip to Borneo is to sit back and let everything happen, and don’t get upset if it for some reason is delayed, or fails to happen altogether. I know people who would not enjoy this type of trip at all because things do not happen the way that they are used to. An example of this is the train trip we did to Tenom – there are days where the train will not run due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. That is just the way things are in Borneo!! But, I digress.
We arrived back at the Lodge and ate a hearty breakfast, packed and hopped into a boat again for our transfer back to Sandakan. On the way, we were to call at Gomantong Caves, which are about 20 km from Sukau, just off the main road to Sandakan. White and black birds nests which are used in the Chinese delicacy, birds nest soup, are harvested from the caves. On arrival at the cave, it is a short walk of about 10 mins from the parking area to the cave entry. Mosquito repellent is essential! You know that you are getting close to the cave by the smell. As well as the swifts which make the nests, the cave is also home to thousands of bats – the guano litters the floor and in places is metres deep. The stench from the guano can bring tears to your eyes. A boardwalk allows the tourist to walk around the cave although, even the boardwalk is covered in many places by a mound of guano. Once inside the cave, it is interesting to look at the walls where in places, thousands of cockroaches live. Once your eyes are accustomed to the darkness, you will also notice that the ground is alive and moves – not only with cockroaches (some larger than you will have ever seen before), but also various grubs which recycle the guano (obviously not fast enough judging by the mounds of it). It has apparently been suggested that the guano be used as a fertiliser, however, it is believed (rightly or wrongly) that the guano has got too much ammonia in it. While walking in the cave, it is also a good idea to cover your head, as the guano is continuously falling from the ceiling of the cave.
The rear of the main chamber at Gomantong Caves
There were some swiftlets visible as we walked around the cave, including some baby swiftlets, as the hatching season had just finished. The valuable nests, though, are higher up in the cave.
From Gomantong, we continued our trip on to Sandakan, where we had lunch in at the Sandakan Renaissance Hotel, and then headed to the airport for our 14.25 hrs flight to Miri, via Kota Kinabalu. The weather for our trips around Sandakan and Sukau over the two days had been fabulous, and the weather for the flight was to be no different. Again, we had seats so that we would be able to see Mt Kinabalu – however, on this occasion, the view of the mountain was not as good as it had been the previous morning. The cloud cover had built up around the summit of the mountain, and although the summit was still visible, it was not the sight that it had been the previous morning.
Poolside at Sabah Hotel
We arrived in Miri just as the sun was setting, and were transferred to the Rihga Royal Hotel [now known as the Miri Marriott – ed] which lies on the outskirts of the main part of the city, located on the coast. In a way it was a pity that the sun had already set, as the sunsets from the hotel are apparently superb.
As we arrived at the hotel we noticed a sign advertising that the hotel had the largest swimming pool in the whole of Sarawak. One would have to admit that it is a fairly big pool, and we decided that after being on the go for the whole day, we deserved a relaxing swim in the largest pool in Sarawak!
The next day we were in for another adventure – Mulu.
Clarissa’s Diary continues on the next page