Monkeying Around in Malaysian Borneo

So after 6 weeks of nagging, begging and bullying Alex he has finally put his KL blog up (see Mum, I promised we hadn’t given up!) so we can continue to update you on our travels. Alex is of the impression one cannot both experience things, and also write about experiencing things and has received a well earned boot up the ar*e, so hopefully his next blog will be a little bit sooner in the making, even if it is, as we have compromised, in Haiku form *sigh*

Once again cutting it stupidly fine, in true Mel and Alex style, we managed to make the plane from KL just in time and arrived safely in Borneo. We have well and truly reached the point in our trip now which surpasses any pre-trip planning and organisation, and so we arrived in Kota Kinabalu, buzzing with anticipation of all the amazing things we wanted to do, but with no actual solid idea in place of how we were going to make any of it happen. Enter Kota Kinabalu, Land of the Tour Operators, but not much else…

Kota Kinabalu

We arrived at Halo Hostel in Kota Kinabalu in the early afternoon, and spent the afternoon looking round the town. It was… not what we expected. While we were by no means expecting the bustle of the hectic metropolis that is Kuala Lumpur, we thought that there would be someone there! The original plan was to have a wonder around, find somewhere a bit buzzy for lunch and do a bit of research about the town. Instead of buzzy, we found this:

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Erm… hello… anyone??

In the end we indulged our Western habits and got a cheeky Nandos, purely because there was one other family in the restaurant and we were so excited to see other people, being somewhat concerned that the zombie apocalypse had happened and we’d missed the memo. Admittedly, it was the middle of the day on a Wednesday, but still.
What KK does have, to make up for the lack of human life, is tour operators. On every corner there is a shop professing unique, once in a lifetime tours at the best rates. Mountain climbing, scuba, rafting, river cruises, monkey treks and animal encounters which all sound suspiciously similar to the one their neighbour was punting. We surmised that KK is something of a stopover, which is convenient for entry into Borneo but doesn’t have such a huge amount to say for itself as a city in its own right. Full of shopping centres, but much like the tour guides all seemed to consist of shops selling the same product, and once you had seen one, you had seen them all. This is of course with the exception of the Centre with a games arcade hidden inside, in which I spent an embarrassing amount of time fuelling my Tekken obsession, much to the amusement of the local kids.

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Showing the kids how it’s done!

I feel I may be being a bit harsh on Kota Kinabalu, there were some positives – there were a few very tasty restaurants including Chilli Vanilla, where I had tasty mango salsa tortillas, and which served excellent Hungarian food too. I also came across a shopping centre in the South of the city, IMAGO, which not only had people in it but also had kitted out for Halloween – they had ‘escaped convicts’ running around the store the week before and also had a Live Maze right in the centre, which I thought was a nice touch, even if it was slightly out of place opposite Prada! We also met the most eccentric, hilarious dry cleaner who delighted in regaling us with tales about stains in other customers clothes, her Philippino coin collection, and the fact that all white people looked the same to her!

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Halloween Decorations – not bad!

Alex and I parted ways for a couple of days during our return to KK for our flight out; with Alex climbing Mount Kinabalu (which he will be filling you in on in a later blog). I went on a snorkelling trip across Gaya Island with Down Below Adventures. Unfortunately the trip was cancelled due to weather on my first attempt, which left me toddling back to the Tekken arcade with my tail between my legs. The following day was beautifully bright and sunny… in hindsight a little too sunny as I now have a burned back and pasty white front from being face down in the water for hours! The weather clearing up led to fairly good visibility, and on my first of the three swims I turned around to find myself face to face with a shark! Now, while my head vivedly recalls that it was a 15 foot Great White snapping distance away, I think what is more accurate is that it was a Reef Shark quietly minding its own business, until we frightened the life out of it and it fled. Below is my attempt at photoing said shark for future verification, however as Alex will attest I am possibly the worst photographer of our generation, and after telling everyone on the boat that I got a photo of the shark and could send it to them, what I actually took was this:

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Don’t worry, I don’t think Alex believes me either!

Never mind! So in conclusion, while we may never really know if it was a terrifying Great White or a harmless Reef shark it was a really enjoyable day, and we saw many types of fish and a sting ray, other examples of my poor photography are documented below: *


Sandakan

After much deliberation about whether to go South or East from KK, we eventually decided to head East to Sandakan for the next part of our Bornean adventure. Sandakan, conversely to KK, turned out to be a pleasant surprise, as having being told that there wasn’t much to do there we had low expectations, which were surpassed by the quaint town with incredibly friendly locals and lively vibe. Like KK, there were a row of restuarants across the road looking out to the ocean, however with reasonable prices these were actually filled with locals and tourists alike, with tasty, cheap local cuisine. The hostel as well was a real winner; clean, spacious bunk rooms, with WiFi only accessible from downstairs, which co-erced everyone into the living room area, which had a great homely feel, helped by the TV and massive DVD collection. We met some of the friendliest travellers yet here, who gave great tips about how to plan our time in order to make the most of our trip on a reasonable budget. Speaking of budget, any travellers on their way to Borneo DON’T BOOK YOUR TRIPS AT KK! While there may be a million tour companies there, getting public transport over to Sandakan and seeing the orangutans or probiscus monkey santuaries can be done DIY for a fraction of the price, and the river tours offered from Sandakan are substantially cheaper as well.

Sandakan is about a 40 minute bus journey from Sepilok Orangutan sanctuary, and the Sun Bear sanctuary right next door. We spent a lot of time deliberating about where to go to see Orangutans, as I was absolutely desperate to see them but at the same time concerned about what the place would be like, having been a bit jaded by exploitive tourist attractions like riding elephants, or dining with orangutans as we later found in Indonesia. We settled with Sepilok, as the Orangutans are essentially wild, having been rescued and rehabilitated, and while they do provide food for them daily at a feeding platform in easy viewing of the public, they are a good distance away and it is entirely their own decision about whether they come out for munch or not. We were fortunate enough to see 4 or 5 in the morning feed and a couple more in the afternoon, and it was absolutely fascinating to see the way they interact with one another and the Macaques (while the Orangs may be few and far between, it seems you can’t get rid of Macaques in Borneo!). Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre was set up in 1964, and today between 60 and 80 Orangs live on the 43 sq km reserve. Due to deforestation and poaching, the Orangutan population has been decimated across Borneo, and this is a particular issue with the young Orangs, as they rely on their mother until about the age of 6. As a result of this, there are a large number of young in the nursery, which are gradually being brought up and taught the necessary survival skills for release when they are old enough to look after themselves.

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Lone by nature, and in the wild they only group to feed or mate, it was amazing to see them come in from different directions, establish a kind of feeding heirarchy with a couple of little bickers over who was going to get the tastiest fruits, then go on their separate ways. One even came onto the viewing platform, and wondered down the route, completely unperturbed by the excitable hoard of tourists surrounding it.


The nursery was something a bit special as well, I could have sat and watched the baby Orangs all day! Working themselves out and practicing interactions with the other young ones, it was humbling and a bit guilt inducing to see the absolute, unquestioning trust they put in their human carers, when it came time to go indoors at the end of the day.

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While most Sun Bears are shy you get the odd poser!

Sun Bears are a bit overshadowed by their orange neighbours in terms of publicity, and we found a lot fewer people had gone to the Sun Bear Conservation Centre, even though it is right next door to the Orangutan sanctuary. However, it is well worth the visit and they are doing fantastic work rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing Sun Bears. The Malayan Sun Bear is the smallest species of bear, and they have suffered through this, with many small cubs being captured as pets… They might be small but they are still bears, so you can imagine how well this turns out. When combined with the massive deforestation also threatening the Orangutans and being hunted for food and medicine, their population has declined by over 30% in the last thirty years. Established fairly recently (2008), the sanctuary itself is unapologetically natural – the public walks over bridges surrounding large forested enclosures in which the bears are separated based on age and the individual’s needs. Instead of a designated feeding time with a viewing platform the bears are left to forage for themselves, and the walkways have spotters who will show you distant bears through binoculars. This gave the entire experience a much more natural feel and when a bear ambled over underneath us we felt privileged to see them in as natural a setting as possible.


The Centre itself places a lot of emphasis on its rehabilitation efforts and successes, and while the two centres are very difficult to compare we came away from the Sun Bear Conservation Centre feeling like we had seen something more raw, a more accurate representation of the animal and the conservation efforts supporting them. If you are heading to Sepilok do make the time for the Sun Bears, you’ll be glad you did.

Kinabatangen River

Having gotten a taste of Bornean wildlife from the sanctuaries, we were keen to see more, and signed ourselves up for a 3D2N trip to the Kinabatangen river at our hostel, for a little under £70pp. Our trip consisted of 4 boat trips down the river, a night walk and a jungle trek. While I was incredibly excited about the prospect of seeing Orangutans in their natural environment, the spiders and snakes I could do without, so it was with some trepidation I signed up for the full package.
On our first afternoon we got settled into our jungle lodge, where we had jammily got a 6 person dorm all to ourselves, and headed out for our first boat trip. Our guide was a great spotter, but not so much of a talker so there were a few occasions where we were whizzed off in a different direction with no explanation, due to mysterious tips passed on from other boats. Eventually we made it to a thick clump of forest where the unmistakable “Ohw!” call of Prosbiscus Monkeys could be heard descending from nearby trees. Hanging out on the canopy was a harem of them, chattering away to each other and settling down for the night. With their little pot bellies and protruding noses, they looked like a group of grumpy Grandpas! There were a couple of babies in the mix as well, climbing over their mothers and hanging precariously off of thin branches. They were amazing, but our tour guide was after bigger fish and after a few minutes with the Probiscus Monkeys revved the engine of our rickety river boat and trundled further along, with us wistfully staring out the back at the Probiscus Monkeys disappearing into the distance.

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Probiscus Monkey family settling in for the evening

Our search for Orangs was in vain, as sadly it would prove to be all trip. A little dejected, we began our journey back as the sun went down, and our attention was taken by the hunt for crocodiles! By shining a small torch up and down the river bank the tour guide was able to help us spot the reflection in the croc’s eyes, and we saw a young one and a much larger one on the route back to the lodge, which put the group in much better spirits in time for dinner!

 

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You can just about see a little croc!

After eating, we headed back to the bunk to grab all-covering clothes, tuck our trousers into our socks and apply enough bug repellent to kill Aragog. It was time for our night walk. We were given a stern warning about touching anything before we left, even the leaves and trees as spiders or other poisonous creepy crawlies could be hiding. I opted for hood up and tightened round my face, hands in pockets and baby steps, which left me shuffling along like a disgruntled pink penguin in my waterproof jacket, much to Alex’s amusement. Shortly into our walk we found a sleeping Kingfisher, it’s colours even more striking by torchlight, and a couple of spiders, which were small enough and far enough away that I managed to keep my composure and not embarrass Alex any further. Apart from the Mosquitos, who were relentless, everything was happy to keep to itself as long as we left them alone, which was a relief! We spotted two frogs clambering over each other which we were advised were poisonous, and when we returned a sinister looking caterpillar was gingerly pulled off one of the tourists, and so we all survived the night walk and departed to bed, eager to see what the following day would bring.


Rain. An early morning and rain. About half of the group bowed out of the morning boat trip as it was chucking it down, but we went and were rewarded with… wet seats and wet bums. Wiser than us, the animals had clearly had a lie in and stayed in whatever shelter they had so we returned for breakfast, planning elaborate stories about adventures with Gibbons to share with the smug people who had stayed in bed. The rain cleared up somewhat for our jungle trek in the late morning, and we caught glimpses of a Giant Squirrel and sat by the river and had an amazing view of the hunting efforts of a Water Monitor and a Kingfisher, which were well worth the sweaty trek over (and the 30-something bites I accumulated during the trip). The afternoon boat trip was much more successful, and we were lucky enough to see a variety of Hornbills, which I love. We also got to watch the Probiscus Monkeys leap haphazardly from tree to tree, interacting amongst themselves and with the Macaques.

 

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Photographic evidence that I actually did the jungle trek!

I realise I’ve forgotten to mention the Long-tailed and Pig-tailed Macaques we saw during this trip, because by this point the novelty had worn off and we were sick of being harrassed and mobbed! Hovering round the tables at meal times, they will nick anything that isn’t tied down, shoes included, and even late in the evening while having a chat with our group we looked up to see a malevolent, plotting little monkey grin directly above our heads on the rafters.

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We came back from this tour agreed that it had been worth every penny, and while difficult to choose just one highlight it was definitely up there, and in my opinion a must if you are heading to Borneo.

To sum up, we had the most amazing two weeks in Borneo, but spent almost as much as we had in the previous month combined. It was worth every penny, but we would advise that these once in a lifetime experiences aren’t cheap – so be prepared backpackers!

*Please note, Alex is the trip photographer for exactly this reason, there is minimal visual evidence of my time without him because of this.

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