Borneo – Home to the “Man of the Forest”

Where is Borneo?
In March 2009 Randy and I went to the island of Borneo to SCUBA dive and to visit the rainforest and photograph wildlife. Borneo is an island southwest of the Philippines and east of Singapore. There are three countries sharing the island; Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. We are going to Malaysian Borneo, the state of Sabah.

How will we get there?
We fly from San Francisco to Singapore (with a short layover in Hong Kong) where we spend the night. In the morning we fly from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. The flight to Singapore ends up being around 17 hours, and the flight to Kota Kinabalu is about 2 1/2 hours. Way too much time spent in an airplane! After an overnight in Kota Kinabalu we fly to Sandakan on the other side of Sabah where we start our adventure with diving at Lankayan Island.

 

Kota Kinabalu:
We arrived in Kota Kinabalu to find that my shell (hardcase) suitcase had been cracked open like an egg on one corner. So the first thing we did was head to the mall to buy a new suitcase. After that we went to the waterfront market; which was very interesting with a million booths full of strands of beads, pearls, jewelry, woven fabrics etc… They all seemed to have the same stuff. Randy was stopped frequently by street vendors trying to sell him watches and sunglasses, but they ignored me. There also was produce, some quite exotic and an entire area dedicated to food. We arrived towards the end of the day and most of the food booths were being taken down but there were some wonderful smells left over. Later we went to an Australian BBQ joint on the waterfront for dinner. The sunset was beautiful and the waterfront restaurants were quite busy. This is a popular hangout for locals and tourists.

Both coming and going we stayed at the Promenade Hotel which is undergoing construction of a ballroom on the second floor of the front lobby but the construction was not too much of a problem as the staff is very helpful with any problem areas and the construction did not start too early or end too late so that it was quiet while sleeping. The rooms were very nice and everything was very clean and smelled nice. We were on the non-smoking floor as requested with a view of both the water and the city. The Promenade also has a wonderful buffet in its café; we ate there for dinner and for breakfast on our way home and did not regret not going out to a local restaurant. My only complaint is that there is only free wireless internet access in the lobby and business center. They should expand this to include the rooms. The hotel was within easy walking distance of most of the downtown area including all the markets, waterfront restaurants, and shopping malls. The next morning we had to get up EARLY! After a breakfast from the airport McDonald’s and Starbucks our flight to Sandakan took off at 7:30 a.m.

The flight lasted about 45 minutes and although there were some clouds we were able to see some of the island including a glimpse of the famous Mount Kinabalu without clouds covering it. It really is quite a majestic mountain! The plane was not even half full so we were able to move around and look out the windows on both sides to see as much as we could.

 

Lankayan Island Resort:
SCUBA diving! An hour and a half boat ride from Sandakan is where we’ll be spending three nights diving. Lankayan is a tiny island in the Sulu sea, where we hope to be diving with whale sharks, juvenile black-tip sharks, and lots of other wonderful sea creatures.

First view of Lankayan Resort is of the dive locker and boat dock.

First view of Lankayan Resort is of the dive locker and boat dock.

It is very peaceful here with beautiful blue-aqua water right in front of our chalet. We can watch the sunrise from our balcony. Our chalet has two rooms, one with two twin beds and one with one king bed. There is air-conditioning in the room with the king bed. We are spread out all over the place! The bathroom is fully tiled and has a huge bathtub! The resort has a main building which includes the office, dining area, and a TV room, all with spacious open and covered decks overlooking the ocean. It was a great place to eat, socialize, or hang out with a cold or hot drink and watch the activity in the water.

And there is activity in the water…from the restaurant decks and while walking the along the shore you can see schools of fish, juvenile black-tip reef sharks and the occasional turtle. Randy and I walked around the island this morning and found tracks where two turtles had come up and laid their eggs. The rangers collect the eggs and place them in a hatchery where they are not exposed to predators. We really like the resort…it is comfortable, clean and has excellent food. But the diving is not so great. But maybe we are spoiled from going to Lembeh. We did find a conch (a live one), the first I’ve ever seen. It was quite large. We also saw the usual subjects; clown fish, shrimp, a few nudibranchs, occasional ghost pipefish. In the distance some sharks have been sighted on several dives and one sleeping shark down in a hole in a coral head. And we’ve seen a few turtles.

Snorkelers look for juvenile sharks in the water below the restaurant deck.

Snorkelers look for juvenile sharks in the water below the restaurant deck.

The snorkeling around Lankayan was quite nice and we weren’t the only ones who enjoyed the clear blue warm water. While snorkeling under the dock we enjoyed swimming through a large school of fish that hung out there. Once while walking on the dock from the dive center to our room we saw three cuttlefish; a female and two males who were posturing trying to get the females attention. The larger male managed to keep the smaller away by circling the female and not letting the smaller male too close to her. Wish we’d had a camera as the water was so clear that even from the dock we could have gotten pictures. Grrrrr…always have your camera in hand! We are the only Americans and have met some really nice people from all over the world. We’ve made friends with a New Zealand couple on their honeymoon hanging out with them during meals both on Lankayan Island and later at Sepilok. Tomorrow we’re off to Selingan.

On our last morning at Lankayan we were awakened early in the morning by something making lots of noise right outside our door. Randy got up and went out with his flashlight to see what it was and it was a turtle that had come up the beach and was digging a nest right in front of our chalet! He quickly turned off the light so as not to disturb the turtle and came and got me out of bed to take a look. It was very exciting! I went and found one of the rangers that track nesting of turtles and he came back to take a look. Unfortunately, this turtle had started her nest digging a little too late in the morning and when it started getting light she stopped and returned to the ocean without laying her eggs. We had to leave…but maybe she came back and finished the next night.

Note:  I didn’t get all the names of our dive guide and other staff at Lankayan Resort but everyone was really great, food was great, atmosphere was great, sunsets and sunrises were great.

 

Selingan Island – Turtle Islands Park:
Another boat ride will take us to Selingan Island, a protected nesting area of Green and Hawksbill Turtles; hopefully we’ll be able to see turtles laying their eggs in the middle of the night and take part in releasing hatchlings, in addition to snorkeling with the turtles around the island.

So I have to say we did not get off to a good start at Selingan. We had to leave Lankayan at the crack of dawn as there were some other guests who had to be in Sandakan to catch an early flight and Selingan was on the way. Then while in transit (by boat in middle of ocean) it started raining. No, it started pouring! We roll down the rain curtains on the boat, but have already gotten wet. Then, when we arrive at Selingan we can’t go in close to the reception building (there is no dock) as it is low tide. They drop us off in the pouring rain with all of our luggage at the very end of a long sand spit. Luckily I had some plastic garbage bags in the outside pocket of one of my bags and we were able to cover our camera bags with them. We start to haul our luggage through the heavy sand. but finally decided to go to reception to drop off the cameras and see if there is someone to help us bring the rest of the luggage in.

Dragging suitcases down the beach to the reception building on Selingaan Island. Photo courtesy India Marshall.

Dragging suitcases down the beach to the reception building on Selingaan Island. Photo courtesy India Marshall.

We were greeted by three girls who said that there were no men to help us as all the men had already left for work. We noticed that they had two-way radios and asked if perhaps they could call a couple of them back to help us. No-way…can’t do that. Finally two of the girls come out to help us themselves. Between the four of us we get the bags to the reception building. Then we find out that there isn’t a room ready for us (not surprising it being only 8:00 a.m.) and that our guide won’t be there until 10:00-10:30 a.m. It is still pouring rain, so we sit in the reception area. After a little more begging we get one of the girls to make some coffee. And there we sit until the rain stops and we were able to go out for a walk.

We find the pens where the turtles hatch and there are some baby turtles in one of the pens. We were quite excited and proceeded to take a couple of pictures. Wrong! A large man comes running out yelling “no pictures” “no pictures” and something about buying a permit. We ask where we can buy a permit and he says from our guide. We then tell him our guide won’t be there for another two hours and he says “no permit – no pictures”. Oh well. We wander around for awhile and then go sit in reception again. As soon as a room is ready a man comes down the walk with a cart, puts our luggage on it and takes us to our room. It is small, very utilitarian, and has twin beds. There is however an air-conditioner, yeh!

Around 10:00 a.m. we head back to the reception building and wait for our guide. He shows up with some other guests (they get dropped off right next to the reception building) and tells us all what is going to happen and when and then we are on our own until just before dinner when we are to meet for a video about turtles and the preservation effort taking place in Sabah. We decide to go snorkeling. We have been told that we will see turtles everywhere around Selingan. Wrong again. You are only allowed to snorkel in one area where we saw no turtles. Actually we didn’t see anything. The whole area is very shallow with dead broken up coral with the occasional small fish swimming around. It was however very refreshing and we ended up going snorkeling twice that day after lunch and before dinner. Which by the way was very uninspiring, lunch that is. Dinner was the same. They were very big on scrambled eggs, serving them at every meal.

After dinner the excitement begins. You sit around the reception building (which is also where you eat and the video takes place upstairs) waiting for a ranger to come in with the news that a turtle has been sighted digging a nest and is ready to lay eggs. We sat around until almost 10:00 p.m. and then got the word. We all followed the ranger out to the nesting site where the turtle was laying eggs. The rangers harvest the eggs and re-bury them in the hatchery. You get to go along to watch how the rangers do it (bury the turtle eggs that is), and then they bring the days hatchlings (if there are any) out and you get to watch them scurry for the ocean. It is kind of a circus, the hatchlings run fast, and in all directions, and those watching helping to turn them around and point them towards the ocean. And that’s it. The show is over.

In summary, this place is a conservation/preservation center for turtles, not a resort. I’m not sure it was worth it for us to go there and I cannot recommend going there but I feel that they are doing a good job in their turtle conservation effort. I’m not sure it even should be open to the public but as having guests does raise money for the effort so that is a good thing. If you do decide to go there, don’t take a lot of stuff. Leave your bags at whatever hotel you were staying at in Sandakan, take some overnight things in a backpack with your bathing suit, mask and snorkel, and a book, and don’t expect much. We saw more turtle activity, with exception of egg laying and hatchlings, on Lankayan Island.

Note:  Our guide at Selingan, Richard, helped us get our luggage across the sand to the boat when we left and was a good guide and a great guy.

 

Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center:
Back on the main island, we’ll be staying overnight near the world’s largest orang utan (The Man of the Forest) sanctuary where orphaned baby orang utans are rehabilitated and returned to the wild when they’re ready.

Mom and two-month old baby orang utan at Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center.

Mom and two-month old baby orang utan at Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center.

Arriving at Sandakan, we are transferred to our new guide who takes us to Sepilok for the 10:00 a.m. feeding. We only see one orang utan and are disappointed but happy to have seen one as the guide says sometimes you do not see any. We are taken back to Sandakan for a delicious lunch at a hotel (Sabah Hotel or Sandakan Hotel, I do not remember the name). A few of the others on our tour have stayed the night there and say it is a nice hotel to stay at. Then we are supposed to go on the city tour but Randy and I decide that since we are staying at Sepilok Nature Resort we would rather go back to Sepilok for the 3:00 p.m. feeding. Our tickets are good for all day. We asked our guide if we could get a ride back and they were very accommodating sending us in the van after lunch.

What an excellent decision! We were rewarded by a pregnant orang utan in a tree just above the trail on the way in, and then we saw two mothers, one with a two-month old, and one with an older baby, plus another single orang utan. The babies are so cute. It is amazing how human-like the tiny infant was. The older baby was quite playful enjoying swinging around on the ropes and hanging upside down. One orang utan even climbed on top of the reception building and played around, sliding down the roof and swinging in the tree above it. We stayed until the reserve closed and they kicked us out (after a stop at the gift shop for t-shirts and cafeteria for ice cream).

Sepilok Nature Resort is beautiful! There is an orchid garden that could take hours to go through, a pond with koi fish and a large monitor lizard, and more delicious food! The buffets in Sabah truly are wonderful. And the rooms are quite comfortable and have air-conditioning. This is the first night since we have arrived where I really slept well. The only issue we had was the shower…which was in the tub and only extended to about mid chest on Randy and even I had to sit in the tub to wash my hair! It was actually kind of comical. And really, we cannot complain everything else was so nice. And only a few minutes walk to Sepilok to see the orang utans. If we had time I would have liked to have gone up the bird platform at the Rainforest Discovery Center which was about a mile down the road from the resort. But it was very hot and we would have had to walk there so we decided not to. That would be a good thing to do in the early morning before the morning feeding at Sepilok.

One of the beautiful orchids in the garden at Sepilok Nature Resort.

One of the beautiful orchids in the garden at Sepilok Nature Resort.

The next day we are taken back to Sandakan where we had lunch at a mediocre restaurant above the market on the waterfront. I do not recommend this restaurant and am surprised no-one got sick as it was not especially clean, guests and employees both using a bathroom with no soap to wash hands with and no towels to dry them. After this we boarded the boat to Sukau.

Sukau Rainforest Lodge – Kinabatangan River:
To get to Sukau Rainforest lodge we trek up the river in a boat to stay in a lodge on the edge of the river to see and hopefully photograph crocodiles, wild pigs, several species of monkeys including proboscis monkeys, and too many species of birds to list.

This is a HUGE river! Very wide, long and muddy! As we cruise along the river we start to see the rainforest in-between palm plantations. There are some villages where the locals use boats for transportation up and down the river. There are locals fishing in the river and we see many fish traps as we go up river. There are many birds; egrets everywhere! We also see Oriental Darters, the occasional Black-crowned Night Heron, and Brahminy Kites which look similar to a bald eagle only smaller and with the chest white in addition to the head. The wings and rest of the body are red-brown. There were also numerous smaller birds zipping around too fast to even try to get a photo of.

When we arrive we are greeted in the lounge with a cold glass of juice and an introduction to Sukau Rainforest Lodge by Winston, the resident naturalist; and Nekko, our guide on the journey up river. The lodge is quite unique with the dining area on stilts over the river. This allows for beautiful views of the river, rainforest, birds and animals while eating meals; plus it is cooler than in the lounge area. But the lounge is a nice place to sit in comfortable couches and chairs and read (there are books available on the flora and fauna of the area), talk to other guests, have a cup of tea or coffee, or take a siesta. There are 20 rooms (basic and clean but ours smelled a bit and no air-conditioning) in two long sections with a covered porch adjoining them which leads out to the information room, more couches and information posters and pictures of the local wildlife.

Our river guide while at Sukau is Wasim who on our first morning takes us on a jungle walk, where there is lots of mud and many leeches (Randy was a good donor and picked up three of them), and Wasim tells us about the different plants and trees of the rainforest.

While there we traveled up and down the river and smaller creeks looking at the different monkeys, birds, and even on our last afternoon cruise some wild elephants! We enjoyed the Proboscis Monkeys with their big noses and bellies. Did you know that the reason their bellies are so big is because they have two stomachs which allow them to digest their plant diet which sometimes includes plants which are poisonous. Other monkeys we say were the short and long-tailed Macaques. We did not see any wild Orang Utans but some had been seen by other groups while we were there. We have enjoyed meeting some really nice folks while on this adventure and Sukau was not an exception as we enjoyed the company of a fun couple from Australia while we were there. Cheers!

 

Borneo Rainforest Lodge – Danum Valley Conservation Area:
Following a long drive through the countryside to Lahad Datu, we’ll enter the Danum Valley Conservation Area, a rainforest reserve, home to over 275 bird species, numerous reptiles, amphibians, amazing indigenous plant species and over 110 mammals, including the rare Sumatran rhino, clouded leopard, orang utan and proboscis monkeys.

Borneo Rainforest Lodge is a beautiful resort way the hell out in the middle of the rainforest. The lodge is next to the river at the bottom of a valley in the rainforest. It is quite beautiful there although after it rained heavily on our second day there the river turned into mud. From the second floor dining hall you look up and across the river to the top of a forested mountain. If you look closely you can see the “viewpoint” that I hiked to later in our stay. From across the river you can hear gibbons and birds call, it is a common nesting area.

When we arrive we are greeted with a glass of cold juice and are given a short orientation and introduced to our guide. Then we are escorted to our room which was very nice, and were told that we are to be moved the next day to an upgraded room with a river view and a whirlpool tub on the veranda. At first we thought “we don’t want to pack again” but after seeing the river view rooms decided it wasn’t such a bad thing. As it turned out Randy sat out some of the more strenuous hikes and took pictures of birds from our balcony seeing more varieties than I did on the nature hikes!

So there are four hikes a day, with the guide selecting the trail and the time of the hikes. Most of the hikes are several miles long, quite muddy, and leeches are commonly found. Randy is an official blood donor to the leeches of the Danum Valley with a certificate to prove it. Some trails go up and down through the rainforest, some are along the river and the one to the viewpoint goes up, up, up the mountain. The night hike is almost always on the Nature Trail which is board-walked and goes past the frog pond and you will see mostly frogs, lizards, and bugs. We did however see Mouse Deer on two night treks. Mouse Deer look more like rats than deer. Randy got a couple of decent shots of them. Mine just show huge glowing eyes.

One of the hikes we both did was the platform bridge walk. Platforms have been built onto some of the largest trees and stretch from one tree to another going across the river. It was pretty scary for me as it is very high up in the trees and the bridge sways as people walk across it, but I did it. The guide let me go first so it wouldn’t sway as much. It was also very hot and a long walk back down the road to get back to the lodge. We thought that it should be a great place for bird photography at the right time of the day. Another fun trail leads to the waterfall and “Jacuzzi Pool”. Although we had some rain sprinkles on our way there it was hot and the pool was soooooo refreshing! You had to keep moving while in the water as there were small fish that would nibble at your feet, which was quite amusing when people would scream. Then everyone would laugh.

Although we didn’t see as many animals while at Borneo Rainforest Lodge as we had hoped it is a beautiful place and we did see Gibbons and Red-Leaf Monkeys which we hadn’t seen before and Randy took photos of some birds that we hadn’t seen before also. There was a large group of birders there and they had gotten the services of the guide that specialized in birds. I think that is the way to go. Contact the lodge directly before you come and request a private guide that specializes in birds. This is true of Sukau Rainforest Lodge also; request a private boat and guide. Not as fun as with four to six other people perhaps but more productive photographically. Our guide here (at Borneo Rainforest Lodge) was Wang who was very diligent in trying to find orang utans and other wildlife for us.

I overheard an employee of the lodge telling someone else that they were getting ready to rebuild the main lodge building. This is not official but probably a good idea as it is a huge two-story building and when you are seated in the second floor dining area and someone walks past the whole floor shakes. We also noticed evidence of termites. I do hope they keep the same format as it is open in the front and back (but covered) and the view from the second floor was really great! Plus, the dining and lounge areas stayed cooler with the jungle and river breezes going through. Butterflies were constantly going from flower to flower on the bushes off the railing making for some beautiful images. And the food was really wonderful! I cannot say often enough how much I enjoyed the food in Sabah. All the resorts and lodges, and even the hotel in Sandakan that we ate at had wonderful buffets with fresh fruit always for dessert.

Update: The renovation of the main building at Borneo Rainforest Lodge is complete. You can see some pictures and read about the renovation on Arkitrek’s website and blog, Borneo Rainforest Lodge: Main Lodge Photos.

And then we had to come home. So it was back to Lahad Datu to catch an airplane back to Kota Kinabalu to return home staying overnight in Kota Kinabalu and overnight in Singapore before catching the flight back to San Francisco.

Our travel agent (Reef & Rainforest Dive & Adventure Travel) booked our trip through Borneo Eco Tours. We recommend them and all the places we stayed. Links below:

Borneo Eco Tours
Sukau Rainforest Lodge
Borneo Rainforest Lodge

 

Some things we would do differently…
1. Perhaps not go diving and land trekking on the same trip OR going diving and then packing all our dive and underwater photo gear in one bag and shipping it home or leaving it in town at the tour company office. We had way too much luggage that we had to haul around. We got a few dirty looks from baggage handlers.
2. We would arrange for some private guides that specialize in finding birds or mammals while at the lodges.
3. We would bring tripods instead of just monopods. Monopods helped but when you are shooting long you can’t beat a tripod. And there wasn’t much to lean on or set your camera on, unless you wanted to chance poisonous bugs or leeches getting on you or your equipment.
4. I would get some of those t-shirts that athletes wear that wick the sweat away and keep you cooler. Regular t-shirts get soaking wet with sweat and then stick to you and take forever to dry out. There was a couple that I thought never sweated and when I mentioned it to them they laughed and said they were sweating also, but the t-shirts kept them cool. They were experienced jungle trekkers.
5. I would have like to stay longer at Sukau and do the night river cruises each night. The night cruise cost extra so we decided not to do it. But that is when you see the birds sitting still that are so active during the day.
6. Go to the Rainforest Discovery Center at Sepilok. I have heard that if you go on their bird platform early in the morning while it is still cool (well not as hot) you can see lots of birds.

Photographic Equipment:
Kathy’s camera gear: Nikon D300 and D70 cameras with Nikon 18-200mm, and 80-400mm zoom lenses on land; an SB800 flash with flash extender, using a monopod with a lightweight ball head.

Randy’s camera gear: Nikon D200 (2) with 18-200mm, 200-400mm zoom lenses, an SB800 flash with flash extender, and a monopod with a lightweight ball head. Randy and I will be sharing one of the D200s underwater in an effort to lighten the luggage load using a 16mm fisheye lens and a 60mm macro lens underwater in a Sea&Sea Housing (D200) with Sea&Sea YS110 strobes. We’ll also have a Sea&Sea point and shoot camera to use above and below water which has some video capabilities, so we’ll both be experimenting with that.