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Malaysia

Jungle Adventures in Danum Valley

Four Days in Pristine Rainforest

sunny 33 °C

Before coming here, when I pictured Borneo in my head it was lush rain forest surrounded by golden beaches and pristine waters. The golden beaches and pristine waters has largely proved accurate. However the Bornean mainland is unfortunately much less untouched than I'd imagined. Vast swathes of rain forest has been cleared over the past couple of decades to be replaced by palm plantations. While it has made a few Malaysians and Indonesians very rich, it has left a pretty vast scar across the country (one that is all too visible from an airplane).

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One of the few truly untouched areas of forest can be found about a two hours' drive from Lahad Datu, and over an hour's drive from any kind of permanent human habitation. This region, named Danum Valley, is a protected region of which is home to the ultra-extensive Boneo Rainforest Lodge, and the Danum Valley Field Centre (DVFC) - where there area's scientific work is conducted. Here, in the DVFC, is where we'd spend four days getting involved with nature.

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The field centre is very much that, and as such we weren't expecting being looked after. We booked into the hostel they had there and survived off instant noodles and peanut butter - jelly sandwiches for four days. On arrival we were told not to bother going on long sweaty treks into the jungle in search of animals, rather that they would pass through camp from time to time. Sure enough within the first couple of hours we'd seen pigs and samba deer. The animals don't come to the camp for food (excepting the pig) but rather just seem to appreciate the open spaces every now and again (that opinion based on no scientific merit whatsoever). One tree near a pond in the centre was almost overrun with tree frogs. Why a snake didn't make his way there and get stupendously fat, I have no idea.

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Despite the advice not to bother with long, sweaty treks and, more importantly, the strict instructions not to head into the jungle without a guide, we made a few attempts at delving deep into the forest. Unfortunately, it didn't go too well. There were trails but they often petered out for a while or were blocked by fallen trees. This made making the leap of faith to carry on deeper into the jungle to try and find the path again slightly nerve-wracking and so on a couple of occasions we were just forced to return to camp with nothing but many a leech bite. On some of the trails the leeches are so numerous that you can see them marching along the forest floor towards you. While I had boots and thick socks which (along with a handy anti-leech stick) kept them at bay, Mike came with only trainers and sports socks and so after the first trek he came back looking like he'd been snared in a bear trap. While the camp was extremely peaceful and relaxing, after the first couple of days, and with a couple of failed jungle treks behind us we were starting to be slightly disappointed with the amount of wildlife we'd actually seen.

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On the afternoon of the second day we headed down to the river beach, which was my favourite spot in the whole of the area; soft sand (perfect for making a sandcastle - 21st C colonialism), cool water and plenty of sticks to play with. After a few hours relaxing here I was about to head back to the hostel when Helen comes running down to the river shouting that an Orang Utan had rocked up in a tree over-looking the hostel. So we hared it back and sure enough there was a female Orang Utan chilling out in a large tree about 50 metres from the hostel. We watched her for about an hour before she slunk off back into the dense forest, us expecting that that was that. About an hour later, however, she got back up the tree and started making her nest for the night, settling down at about half six.

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The next morning (on advice from other hostel-dwellers who knew a lot more about Orang Utans than us), we were all out, staring at the tree from about six am - some had been out since closer to 5. However this laziest of primates refused to stir until about half seven, and then hid in a huge bromeliad, resting in the tree. The others that were staying in the camp either went off to do their scientific duties or left the camp for good soon after eight, leaving just me, Mike and Helen staring at an inanimate tree. A further two and a half hours of this past (a truly great way to spend a morning) before our ginger friend peeked out of his tree at us. And then, within about 100 seconds, she'd disappeared back into the forest, this time for good.

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On the final day there was a huge troop of macaques hanging out on the edge of camp and Mike, on a solo trip to the tree platform, found himself surrounded by red leaf monkeys. All in all the place is pretty magical and, I imagine, as close as you can come to experiencing the best of the Bornean rain forest without tracking animals for days through the dense foliage and stifling heat. Elephant dung was everywhere along the road in and out of Danum valley, and both the extremely rare clouded leopard and ridiculously rare sumatran rhino make their homes here. As is always the case, there is more that you wish you had been able to see when coming to a place like this, but I suppose it just makes the case for a return visit one day.

Posted by Monsk 23:19 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Diving Sipadan

The Life Aquatic in Borneo

sunny 33 °C

On our way from the Kinabatangan River down to a coastal town called Semporna we had to pass through Lahad Datu. Lahad Datu is the kind of town that offers nothing to a traveler other than air-conditioned internet cafes and buses away from the place. Unfortunately we had to swing by this way on our way to Mabul Island, where we'd spend the next three days scuba diving, to organise a jungle trip for once we returned to dry land.

This done, we booked a bus onwards which was due to leave hourly from 3pm. So, at ten to three we turned up at the bus station and waited (bus station is a slight overstatement - it was a roadside with a few huts). And waited and waited. At half four a bus turned up (the three o'clock bus had turned up and left at half 2) and we delightedly got on board. Half an hour later we discovered the bus driver had a problem with his arm that he deemed deserving of a trip to the hospital so just left the bus and all its passengers at the side of the road and sneaked off. Another two and a half hours later a final bus turned up which finally took us to Semporna.

Semporna provided us with a bed and fried rice before taking a morning boat to Mabul Island. Mabul Island is a small, sandy atoll off the east coast of Borneo that has hosted a Malaysian fishing community for decades before, more recently, being rather consumed by dive resorts. The photo below shows Mabul from the air and the bungalows over the ocean are the reserve of the more luxury resorts (you can spend a hell of a lot of money to stay in an elaborate shed above the sea in this part of the world). We stayed at the more budget-friendly Uncle Chang's. Uncle Chang is something of a hero around these parts; as a local boy allegedly starting off in the tourism business with 100RM (about £20) he has built up a very successful dive resort. Alas, the only evidence of the legend on the island was the plethora of newspaper cuttings and certificates that were framed around the dining shack.

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Getting involved straight away we dived three times on the first day, twice around Mabul Island and once at another nearby island named Kapalai. Seeing turtles, giant moray eels, 6ft groupers and even a fish that had had its face bitten off, the first set of dives were already pretty spectacular. But this was only the warm-up. On the second day we'd dive Sipadan - the real reason most people come here. Regularly voted one of, if not the, best dive site in the world, the amount of coral and the abundance and variety of fish is stunning. Imagine making your dream aquarium and throwing in hand-fulls of turtles, sharks and thousand-strong schools of jacks and barracuda for good measure and you're beginning to get close. Unfortunately all pictures were taken on a film camera and so these sights are currently locked away on rolls of plastic.

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The evening after diving Sipadan we were to be treated to Uncle Chang's live band performing for the guests. Mike had discovered that members of the infamous four-piece had been living amongst us at the resort and sure enough, shortly after 8pm they kicked the evening off with a stirring rendition of Creep by Radiohead. Many other classics such as Summer of '69, Wonderwall and even (on request) Gangnam Style. Unfortunately, and after many a Tiger beer, me and Mike thought we'd get involved and give our rendition of Mr Brightside, we didn't know the words and even having them in front of us didn't help much. Were we not firmly inebriated it would have been quite embarrassing. That was the last piece of audience participation.

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The next morning, diving again, I was feeling dog-rough. Sure enough, after about 20 minutes of being underwater, the nausea got the better of me. At this moment I had a flashback of my first dive instructor telling me that it's fine to vomit through the regulator; I duly obliged. Somehow Mike and Helen, who were swimming behind me, didn't notice and blindly swam through the remnants of my breakfast. In fairness, it did increase the abundance of fish in that area for a brief period. The following dives were at the same time beautiful yet painful. Later that afternoon we made our way back to the mainland for an extremely disappointing meal at KFC (I'd been saving myself for some time for this KFC you understand) and another night in the town of Semporna, before hitting the depths of the Bornean rainforest.

UPDATE: After finally getting my underwater photos developed, here are a few choice cuts.

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Posted by Monsk 01:48 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

The Kinabatangan River

Watching monkey from a boat

all seasons in one day 32 °C

After another evening spent eating barbecued squid at the night market in Kota Kinabalu we took an early flight across the country to a town called Sanadakan. Sandakan used to be the capital of Malaysian Borneo until it got so blitzed by the Japanese in World War II that they gave it up as a lost cause and moved the capital to Kota Kinabalu. Despite this, it's now not a bad city and it has several KFCs.

On landing at the tiny airport we met up with Mike, a good friend from university who's been working in Australia for the past couple of years. Following a brief but heart-felt embrace we went to see some Orang Utans. The sanctuary, a forty minute drive from Sandakan town, gives a home to orphaned Orang Utans and tries to prepare them for life in the wild. However, as we turned up in time for feeding we were surprisingly close to the animals and it did have the feeling of a large zoo enclosure. Despite this, the Orang Utans were fascinating to watch; gracefully bouncing about between ropes and trees or simply hanging upside down, taking everything in. After an hour or so of watching the fellows we got the bus back into town, driven by an apparently huge Liverpool fan.

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At around lunch time the following day we boarded a bus that would take us on a two-and-a-half hour journey to probably Borneo's most famous river: the Kinabatangan. Here we'd spend the next two days sailing up and down it while marvelling at the sheer abount of wildlife on the river's banks. The reason for such high density of wildlife is likely due to the vast palm plantations that have replaced rainforest over much of Borneo, confining the jungle's inhabitants to a narrow strip either side of the river.

While we only caught a glimpse of the arse-end of the fabled pygmy elephants that roam the forest and drink from the river, proboscis monkeys, macaques, silver leaf monkeys, hornbills, monitor lizards and crocs were all found aplenty.

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Night walks into the jungle were generally a disappointment, however, as more stuff (including large gekos, bats, scorpions and other insects) simply walked (or flew in the case of the bats) into camp.

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On the final river cruise the heavens opened with a vengeance but so determined was our guide to find the pygmy elephants that this wasn't going to stop us. So for 90 minutes we sailed through torrential rain so bad that it was painful to actually look at anything. Our guide wasn't impervious to this either so spent most of the time driving the boat with his eyes closed. Unsurprisingly, this tactic hindered his ability to see elephants somewhat and after an hour and a half of this we returned back to shore soaked to the core. The silver lining to these extremely leaky clouds was that the thunder was even better in real life than on Dolby surround sound.

Posted by Monsk 07:02 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

The Tip of Borneo

4 days rolling in a Proton Saga

all seasons in one day

After the short but strenuous trek up Mount Kinabalu me and Helen figured it'd be a good idea to kick back for a few days and roll around in Malaysia's most famous car; the Proton Saga. So we picked up the 1.3l muscle car, filled her up from an empty tank for a tenner (petrol is dirt cheap out here), and headed north with the aim of reaching the most northern point of Borneo before nightfall. Unfortunately, around lunch time some serious rains had decided to turn up, bringing traffic to an almost standstill for miles around as roads flooded. The majority of the drive was through bouts of torrential rain, but this didn't phase the Proton Saga.

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Eventually we arrived at the restaurant we were aiming at shortly after dusk and ate while watching streaks of lightning striking out to sea. The restaurant, as well as the jungle lodge we'd stay at that night, is run by a middle-aged British ex-pat named Howard - who is also very good at selling you another beer. After a few hours spent chatting round a fire on the beach we headed to the longhouse where we'd be staying for the next couple of days (a longhouse is a large bamboo-based construct that is traditionally used in Borneo to house multiple families; with minimal privacy). We spent a couple of days here chilling out and swimming in the crystal-clear sea (seriously, this spot was incredible), before heading back south to a town called Kota Belud.

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We rolled into town in time to watch some local football while gorging ourselves at the night market next to the pitch. Chicken satay, fried rice, chicken stuffed flat-bread and tuna steak vanquished our hunger, while banana cake, peanut butter pancakes and fried banana balls were added for pure gluttony. And all for about a fiver.

The next morning we fired up the Proton and headed off to find a local beach. Eventually we stumbled upon a lively looking stretch of sand in Usukan Cove where an entrepreneurial local lad had set up the kind of seaside resort Butlins could only dream of. Banana boat rides for £2, lilos to rent, there was even a beach karaoke at a mere 20p per song. We chose to sit out the karaoke and allow the lad himself to murder Hey Jude. A beach goat and table tennis table topped off a truly stunning package.

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After a couple of hours, however, we had to pull ourselves away to make the 3 hour drive to Poring, a small spot on the other side of Kinabalu mountain where we'd spend the late afternoon bathing in hot springs. The next morning we headed to a canopy walkway (Poring is in the middle of the rainforest that covers much of Mount Kinabalu) to see what critters would be lounging in the trees. Being the first people to arrive we had pretty much the run of things and while just walking between the trees, 40m up and on rope bridges was fun enough, a couple of Giant Squirrels turned up for added entertainment.

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Before heading off back to Kota Kinabalu to return the trusty Proton we stopped at someone's garden to have a look at a Rafflesia flower. These things are the biggest flowers in the world, normally existing as a bulb before exploding into large red blooms every once in a while. The look like the evil plant from Little Shop of Horrors and apparently smell like rotting flesh - though the one we saw wasn't noticably pungent from where we were stood.

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About four hours later we rolled into Kota Kinabalu and, thanks to a rather apathetic lady at the car rental place, got our full deposit back.

Posted by Monsk 08:36 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

An 8km Staircase

sunny 30 °C

The task of climbing Mount Kinabalu, the 4100m high peak that towers over much of north Borneo, started with an early rise to get to a bus station, to catch a bus that didn't exist. Arriving at 6:45, we were to that there was no 7am bus and that we'd have to wait until 8:30 for the next one. This would mean a swealtering climb in the mid-day heat, or arriving so late as to not be allowed to climb at all. As it happened we weren't the only ones who had turned up for the mythical 7am bus; a German called Nils was also hanging around, looking just as confused. We decided to wait it out for the 8:30 bus to leave but luckily it filled up quite quickly and actually set off before 8:00.

After a two hour bus ride that seemed to cover most of the ascent, we arrived at the park HQ and hired a guide between me, Helen and Nils. The climb started at 1870m, at which height the temperature was already noticeably cooler than at sea-level but still made for a sweaty initial hike. That the bus ride had taken us seemingly most of the way up the mountain already was no great disappointment, the walk over the following two days was only 8km to the summit but gaining 2230m in that distance, meant that the hike would be described more accurately as an 8km staircase.

By 15:00 the fauna had changed from initially tropical in nature to something that more resembled an English fell. Dandelions, long grass and hardy bushes livened up the granite mountain-side. Within these apparently familiar yet entirely unknown surroundings was situated the Laban Rata Resthouse where we'd spend the night before getting up at the absurd time of 2:30am to reach the summit for sunrise. The resthouse was entirely supplied by a stream of Malaysian sherpas that we kept passing as we climbed. Carrying 30kg each, up 1400m of mountain for $20 seemed a pretty grueling job. However, the resthouse was comfortable and the food served to us that night was nothing short of a banquet after the pathetic excuse for a sandwich they'd provided us with on the way up.

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At 10pm, as everyone was going off to bed, Helen realised that her shoes were missing. This was something of a problem as without them she'd have to complete the summit climb and subsequent descent barefoot. Despite questioning everyone available and leaving notes all over the resthouse, by 3am the next morning nothing had turned up. Our guide found Helen some rubber shoes that all the guides and sherpas rocked which, while apparently very 'grippy', were a couple of sizes too small so also quite painful.

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The final 830m ascent was done under complete darkness, predominantly across bare granite rock and with nothing but the moon, and head-torches to light the way. A rope fastened into the mountain-side provided an occasionally necessary method of hauling yourself up the rock, while at other times provided a significant trip hazard. At around 5:30 we hit the summit as the firey red glow of sunrise began to spill over the mountains to the east of us. Slowly the Sun rose, changing the appearance of everything around us. The bare mountain was bathed in a faint lilac light. The most impressive sight though was the shadow that the mountain cast over the land to the west and out into the sea; probably 50 miles in total.

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We descended back to the resthouse for breakfast where, miraculously, Helen's shoes had turned up. I imagine this made the descent much more manageable, though this part of the trek took the greatest toll on my legs which were like jelly by the end. As Nils got a bus East, me and Helen took a cab back to Kota Kinabalu with a Chinese taxi driver who ,it turned out, loved Lady Gaga. And then we slept.

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Posted by Monsk 18:29 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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