Linda Rogan
Greensborough, Victoria 3088

email lindarogan@netspace.net.au

18 April 2004 Sunday

What a mind blower modern travel is!

Check in at chilly Melbourne airport at 5.30am.

An hour and 20 minutes flight to Sydney.

Quick transfer to the Australian Airlines for direct flight to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s state capital.

Australia peels away below.

Green coastal fringe, braided channel country, parched ochre inland.

Then leaving Australia near Darwin, serpentine rivers wash brown fans into the blue-green Timor Sea.

By late afternoon the same day, we walk on the Tanjung Aru Beach near KK, amongst weekending locals, a diverse mix of Asians.

Children splash in the sea or play beach soccer.

We fall into a slow stroll through thick tropical air, attracting some stares, but mostly friendly greetings.

We’ve shed our cold weather cares, with our cold weather clothes and are ready for the adventure ahead.

Two short flights take us to our first park destination, by Fokker to Miri, then by Twin Otter to Mulu, with a Sarawakian customs check at Miri.

The revving roar of the Twin Otter filled us with excitement, and a moment of doubt.

Through the open door of the cockpit, one of the pilots appeared to be consulting a flight instruction manual.

Fears faded as Miri’s industrial and farmland fell away and the jungle clad hills loomed dramatically through clouds. The faultless descent into the Mulu airport had us at the Mulu Resort by midday.Before the airport, about ten years ago, this would have involved a twelve-hour trip up river by boat.

Resort staff with umbrellas and tricycle carts took our luggage to our room. The air conditioned double room was one of a string along the raised board walk, all well above the flood level in wet season. The boardwalk also encircles a jungle-clad limestone pinnacle, the resort’s climbing walls for energetic guests. It is as nature designed.

Royal Mulu Resort on the Melinau River

We had time for a quick sandwich before our first excursion, a walk to Lang and Deer Caves. This was our first experience walking in pouring tropical rain where a raincoat may keep out the rain but perspiration saturates the clothes. The benefit of seeing the caves in a downpour was that the water washing through the low points in the cave washed away much of the smell of bat guano. Seepage through the cave roof created spectacular veils of water cascading. The down side was that in such wet weather the bats, reputed to exit the cave in swarms most evenings, chose not to emerge. We had to settle for seeing the bats in Deer Cave and a centipede that leaves a glowing trail behind it to distract any predators.Other signs of wildlife were Civet Cat tracks.

Outside the caves a Pygmy Squirrel raced across the boardwalk.

That evening we found that air conditioning in this climate is good for drying socks as well as cooling.

Each day at the resort started with a sumptuous choice of breads, pastries, fruits and cooked Asian or western style breakfasts, including an omelette chef.

Day two was a boat trip to Clearwater and Wind Caves. Along the way we spotted a Black-and-red Broadbill entering a swinging mass high over the water, its nest.

Clearwater Cave is impressive as the longest cave passage in South-East Asia. Our guide Phillip had participated in Mulu cave exploration, some of which was limited by the time it is possible for an exploratory team to remain underground.

Outside the cave mouth we saw the One-leaf Plant. I was particularly interested in long green leaves that clung high up the limestone cliff. Obviously a slipper orchid but with binoculars it was clear that no flowers were present.

In the late afternoon it was pleasant overlooking the Melinau River as the day time cicadas gave way to the night time cicadas, mechanical squeals and loud whirs. We caught sight of the shiny black rhinoceros beetles with up to three spectacular horns.

The third day we set aside to explore the jungle for some of Mulu’s special plants and birds. Phillip had arranged a boat and driver for the day (his young uncle as it turned out) and took us out on the river, a churning brown expanse of water. Our first sighting was a large white bird with a black crested head. The tail was longer than its body and waved gracefully behind it like white streamers on a kite’s tail. This was the Asian Paradise Flycatcher. A later guide told us that locals believed it was bad luck to speak out loud about seeing this bird and was likely to cause rain. For us it boded well as the day included wading, climbing slippery cliffs to the limit of our abilities and paid off with finding and photographing the one bloom I was most keen to see in the wild. The fact that I needed my telephoto lens didn’t discourage me at all as I hoped it would help assure this plant’s safety from illegal collection. Unfortunately there have been illegal collections of plants from within the National Park, even though plants raised from seed, can be purchased from nursery sources.

Clouds of Bats from Deer Cave over Mulu

As we returned to the resort we saw clouds of bats rising from the jungle in the direction of Deer Cave and heading toward the coast for a night of feeding.

At the end of the day Phillip took us to his home not far from the resort and let us pour over his excellent library of books about local birds, cave exploration and orchids while enjoying tea and black peanut buns. Mulu was an exciting start to our journey and we wondered what adventures would lay ahead.

Our plan was to climb Mount Santubong for views of the South China Sea.

Heavy rain fell overnight and promised to continue through out the day, obscuring views and making the track nearly impassable. We chose to walk near the resort. We took the two jungle treks available, the two hour loop from the Jungle Trek House returning to the road near the Sarawak Cultural Village and also the (about five minutes walk beyond the second resort) Camp Permai Jungle Trail (after checking in at the reception). This loop would have been about an hour’s trek but over half way around, we found water running too high at the crossing below the waterfall and needed to retrace our steps.

We also had time to explore the lovely gardens at the other Holiday Inn Resort Damai Lagoon. If we were going to walk in this climate, clearly we would be wet, either from rain or from perspiration.

Sarawak Cultural Village

Less then an hour by road and another by boat took us to Bako National Park. We took only packs with our overnight needs in the small open boat. The park chalets were simple, clean and comfortable, with overhead fans and en-suite toilets and hand held showers. Screens and window locks secured against mosquitoes and “naughty monkeys”.

Refreshed by the breeze across the sea, we approached one of the best places in Sarawak for spotting animals in the wild.

Silver Leaf Monkeys shook the boughs in treetops and I dropped my pack to get out my camera. I had to be quick with my 300mm lens to catch a mother with her ginger coloured baby.

Long tailed macaques were constant companions around the park headquarters. Mostly fun to watch, they whisked food off the table if the diner’s attention strayed.

Proboscis Monkey near the main Boardwalk – Bako

A walk along the mangrove boardwalk, and sitting quietly at low tide yielded our first views of the bulbous nose and “beer belly” of the male proboscis monkeys. Found only in Borneo, these rare monkeys feed only on leaves and are fond of one species of mangrove.

A climb to the drier kerangas vegetation was needed to see our first pitcher plants. We photographed Nepenthes rafflesiana , gracilis and albomarginata .

While mosquitoes had pestered around park headquarters, we were free from them in the kerangas

The overnight stay allowed us adequate time to observe the wildlife that was congregated around the park headquarters: Colourful snakes, including the green pit viper and reticulated python, butterflies and bearded pigs and fireflies in the mangroves after dark.

At day’s end, the view of Mount Santubong across the red tinged South China Sea is burned into my memory.

Mt. Santubong as seen from Bako

Kuching, capital of Sarawak, City of Cats

We arrived from Bako in the mid afternoon. Bustling city traffic was orderly and horns were only heard when police were making way for some VIP.

The tambang or river ferries, crossed the graceful curves of the Sarawak River to the village on the north bank, looking much as they would have in the 1800s. An illusion spoilt only by motors and the Lipton Tea ads on their curved yellow roofs.

Cats are taken seriously here and cat statues in regal poses watch pedestrians at intersections and roundabouts. The Holiday Inn was on the riverfront and we enjoyed a long stroll along the Sarawak River. We should have allowed more time to explore this city.

A day trip to Gunung Gading was to give us some energetic walking and possibility of seeing Rafflesia in bloom. We had a good search along the boardwalk of the Rafflesia Trail. Brown buds swelled fist sized on the host vines. The carrion stench of flowers that had rotted filled the air. But no blooms this day. A consolation was the sighting of a giant lily, the flower a metre high, over half that length being the rough yellow spadix. Our guide called it the One-stem Plant. I learned later this was an Amorphophallus species, perhaps A. bulbifer . ( name indicating a misshapen phallis )

The Waterfall Trail offered pleasant climbing on rough tracks. The heat persuaded us that a long swim in one of the natural pools was a good alternative to the six hour summit walk.

Before leaving the park, we took time to enjoy the peaceful scene on rocks around a pool near park headquarters, popular with locals but utilised only by butterflies this day.

A pick up at 7:45 am gave us an early start for the long drive to Batang Ai. We arrived at the jetty on the hydro lake at 12:45 in time for the 1:00 boat to the Batang Ai Hilton Longhouse Resort.

This upmarket version of the native longhouse features spacious long halls on the lakeside of each block of rooms. In a real longhouse such areas would be bustling with tribal activity, while unwanted food scraps would sift down through the bamboo floors to animals below. At Hilton the front halls echoed with the occasional footsteps of guests and the hardwood floors shone.

Hilton’s Batang Ai Longhouse Resort

The gardens around the resort were bright with African Tulip Trees and we discovered more pitcher plants growing nearby. A guided walk to a nearby hilltop reached a small clearing with a mound, a large Chinese jug and the litter of drink bottles around. The story told was that this marked the grave of an important warrior and that the jug was a symbol of wealth and respect. The locals honoured his spirit by coming up to visit and share a drink. To avoid insulting the spirit, some of the drink must be left at graveside. A bit further on a short canopy walk and high platform offered views of the hydro lake through the treetops.

An exciting longboat ride that powered up through rapids was the way to access Batang Ai National Park. An easy (but sultry) walk up a ridge at a fork in the river passed through more native grave sites marked by large Ming jars. A large black bird settled briefly in a gap in the canopy and binoculars showed the wispy white head feathers of our first hornbill, the White Crested Hornbill. This by itself made the trek worthwhile for us.

We welcomed cooling rests at the pandoks along the trail. The aroma of fish and glutinous rice rose to meet us as we descended to the river at the top end of the walk. The boatmen had cooked lunch over an open fire. We were still picking succulent fish from the bones when the rains came pelting down. Without shelter we hurried back to the longboat. The boat lurched backwards through narrow river rapids, poled by the boatmen until the river widened enough to allow a turn around. I huddled under an umbrella, hoping it would not obscure the signals from the poler at the front to the driver at the back that seemed essential to avoid disaster.

Tibu Longhouse on the Batang Ai

A visit to a longhouse also called “the farmhouse” gave us a look at a typical bamboo longhouse. Only one resident had remained while others went into the forest to hunt. He was well known to the guide and we removed shoes and sat on a grass mat to visit and shelter from the rain. This longhouse was built at the time the national park was being established as an assertion of the rights of the local people. Apparently satisfactory access to park areas was later negotiated and many of the longhouse residents chose to move back closer to civilisation.

On our return to Kuching , we enjoyed another delicious seafood meal at the Top Spot near the Holiday Inn. This open-air eatery featured lines of separate shops. Each displayed rows of vegetable, fish and shellfish. The aroma was clean and fresh as the open sea. English speaking waitresses helped us order. Possibly the best meal of the trip. The cost for the meal for two and drinks was 45.50 Malaysian ringgits ($A17.50)

An early trip to the airport the next day meant we reached KK airport by midmorning.

Osman was our knowledgeable guide for the next four days. He went out of his way to be sure all went well for us.

Mount Kinabalu is about 88km from the airport. The minibus wound up past cool climate vegetable gardens and mushroom sheds. At one brief stop locals sold hand woven crafts. The view from here was of green peaks with a Dusun village nestled between.

At the parks office, the craggy top of Mount Kinabalu was just visible through gathering clouds and mist of late morning. It was pleasantly cool here but still short-sleeve weather. On arrival we made arrangements to spend a day climbing Mount Kinabalu with a specialist guide. Cost was RM 230 for two to climb and RM 150 for specialist guide. It was easy to fill in a day with short walks near park headquarters and a visit to the Mountain Gardens. The surrounds were beautiful, full of bird life, and cool enough for pleasant walking although frequent rain showers were encountered.

Local Market near Kinabalu Park

The second day our mountain guide Alim and his son, also a keen bird-spotter, took us up the mountain track at a naturalist’s pace. He told of the Dusun experiences in the war years and was also able to give the scientific name of nearly every plant I noticed. Frequent photo stops meant that we seldom became short of breath. It was Sunday and many groups of climbers passed us at speed. Often we found them sitting and panting when we reached the next pandok .

I had hoped to climb as high as Laban Rata but time ran out as we explored along the Mesilau Trail beyond Layang Layang . Here Nepenthes villosadangled on tendrils and Coelogyne orchids had strings of white blooms.

We had just reached the area where Rhododendrons are one of the most common plants and identified six species. The largest was golden-blossomed R. lowii and the smallest, the red-orange heath-like R. ericoides .An endless variety of ferns dripped from the mist in the moss forest.

A small brown mammal darted out to nibble dried fruit someone had dropped.

Even our guide was pleased to have a chance to photograph the endemic Kinabalu Rat.

Part of the Trail from
Park HQ to Laban Rata

We returned to the car park not long before dark feeling exhilarated and only a little tired from the climb.

Some rare species we hadn’t seen on the mountain, bloomed in the nursery. On our last day, by special arrangement, we were able to get close-up photos including the rare Paphiopedilum rothschildianum .

It was a shock leaving the cool of the mountain forest for the humid and sulphurous Poring Hot Springs. The pools were crowded with happy local families enjoying a public holiday. We chose to explore the canopy walk. As we walked up the track to the start, a Crestless Dragon challenged us. This lizard was guarding its hole at the trackside and looked like a miniature dinosaur.

Once in the canopy, our attention was caught by a Giant Squirrel leaping from tree to tree. Said to be a meter long, he looked even longer but was too quick for my camera.

Colourful and more delicate wildlife flitted from flower to flower in the enclosed garden of the Butterfly Farm. The dramatic green and black wingspan of the Rajah Brooks Butterfly contrasted with its bright red head. Many smaller species posed on red or yellow flowers.

On our return to KK, a side trip at Inimam took us down a slippery unsealed road to Orchid de Villa. Originally a rubber plantation, now hybrid orchids are grown for cut flower trade. The hillside area is devoted to growing about 200 native orchids species. A new laboratory is being built to house research into growing desirable species from seed. The most impressive bloom here was a slipper, Paphiopedilum dayana.

Osman again picked us up from the hotel in KK. On this occasion, being school holidays, he brought his four children along. They turned out to be a delightful addition to the next two days and were very well behaved.

By mid morning we had climbed into the Crocker Ranges and visited the Tambunan Rafflesia Reserve. Up to now, we had seen only big brown buds. The display in the information centre was attractive and informative. The best news was “a bloom, at site 46”, one of the sites monitored on a weekly basis.

Our guide led us over rough country, diverting us with tales of guiding the group who made the track to remote Mount Trusmadi. He had carried a gun on that occasion in case of Cloud leopard or Sun Bear problems.

Rafflesia in Bloom

At last something red and white on the slope below the track. A freshly opened Rafflesia priceii ! At about 30cm across, it was one of the smaller Rafflesia species. As we touched the cold, leathery petals, we noted this plant had no discernable odour.

Near Tenom was the Murut Cultural Centre. Unlike Poring, this was closed for the holidays and we were the only people wandering through the open part of the building and visiting the bamboo longhouse at the rear. The four children raced ahead to the longhouse. I could see massive bamboo lengths bouncing rhythmically under the floor. Once inside I could see the four children starting the bounce of the lansaran , (similar to a trampoline but made of bamboo) Neither the guide nor Peter could come close to touching the target legs dangling from the ceiling. Apparently more then 20 people may assist to get the bounce going in the Murut tradition.

That night was spent in the Perkasa Hotel, high on a hill overlooking Tenom. We had time for a walk to a Rafflesia site near the hotel. It was a pleasant walk even though only rotted blooms and buds were seen.

This morning we visited the gardens of the Agricultural Park, Sabah. Exotic decorative and food plants were featured. Most colourful was in the Hybrid Orchid Centre. Of greatest interest to me, was the Orchid Conservation Centre. Hundreds of species grew in a re-created jungle setting. This was another chance for a close look at orchids we hadn’t seen in the wild. Fortunately we finished there before the mid day rain storm.

Our umbrellas came in handy as we boarded the old diesel train to travel through the Padas Gorge to Beaufort. Drinks and snacks were hawked before the first groans and squeals of metal on metal and the train lurched forward. This stop/start jolting was repeated at every tiny wayside station along the three-hour trip. By the end we were pleased to get back on padded seats of the vehicle that returned us to KK.

About 2/3 of the way into the flight to Lahad Datu on the east coast of Sabah , jungle-green mountains gave way to Palm Oil Plantations. The plantations were like giant chenille bedspreads spread across the hills.

In the midst of these hills, Tabin Wildlife Reserve is 120,500 hectares of protected forest set aside for wildlife including the rarely seen Sumatran Rhinoceros and the occasionally sighted Pygmy Elephant.

Deep coloured rainforest timbers featured in the Borneo style jungle lodges and the open-air restaurant where pillars were carved with jungle motifs. Bedrooms had river views, air conditioning and were comfortable after a day’s trek.

It seemed rain was always falling or likely to fall soon.

Lipad Mud Volcano – Tabin

Our treks took us to one of the mud volcanoes, where animals may congregate especially at night. It was daytime and we had only a glimpse of a Mouse Deer, a good look at a snake and tracks from deer and pig. Still it was exciting to see fresh elephant dung, a sure sign they were nearby. On night drives we saw many delicately marked Leopard Cats and some bearded pigs.

Bird life was easier to spot. Resonating calls led to our first sighting of the red and yellow bill of the Rhinoceros Hornbill. Also seen were Pied and Wrinkled Hornbills. Smaller birds included White throated Fantail, Greater Coucal, Malaysian Blue Flycatcher, Red-tailed Tailorbird, Black-and-yellow Broad bill, Trogon and the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo.

The only wildlife we encountered too closely were the leeches, especially the tiger leeches that race up pant legs.

On the third day when we were transported back to Lahad Datu , the weather changed from intermittent downpour to torrential rain and wind. As the storm worsened, the flight was cancelled. Malaysia Airlines arranged accommodation in the Executive Hotel.

We decided to travel by taxi to Sukau the next day. This meant missing out on a half day in Sandakan, but the drive was less then three hours, and we arrived at Sukau ahead of schedule. After finding a boat to take us across the river, we were settled at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge before lunch.

Proboscis Monkey near
Sukau Rainforest Lodge

The river cruises each afternoon, morning and night got us close to wildlife. The day cruises were excellent for viewing monkeys, especially the Proboscis monkeys. It was nearly dark on the evening of our last cruise when the boat pulled up for us to observe two wild orang-utans, mother and child. They melted quickly into the trees and are a shadow in my photos but it was a thrill that brought the number of primate species sighted in the two days to five.

The night cruise was best for getting close to sleeping birds, animals and estuarine crocodiles.

The fig tree near the resort was in fruit and attracted many birds, most notably the Rhinoceros Hornbill. In all we spotted five of the eight hornbill species.

Our last day in Borneo.

Sukau to Sandakan by fast boat.

After lunch was a visit to Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre to get a close look at orang – utans . The centre cares for orphaned and illegally collected orang-utans and gradually reintroduces them to the wild. Some of the graduates of the program come in for a supplementary feed most days. Tourists get close views from viewing platforms. It was amazing watching these large auburn primates swinging in for bananas and milk. They seemed bored with the tourists and turned their backs while eating. For me, seeing a female with her wild born baby was a poignant end to satisfying journey.

Mother and baby at Sepilok

We flew from Sandakan to KK that evening and caught a night plane back to Sydney. At the airport at KK we heard other Australian voices for the first time in three weeks.

On the plane I wakened to a surreal sight. A straight slice of glowing red-ochre with a thin edge of amber separated the black horizon from the midnight-blue sky.

Dawn over the Australian outback.

Text Copyright © 2004 by Linda Rogan – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Photographs courtesy of Phil Youdale, Penny Favilla and Albert Teo

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