Easter 2011 – Borneo

It was time to celebrate Easter, sadly without family and hot cross buns. Also, no Easter Egg hunt here but instead we got a holiday at work and an exotic vacation to Borneo, a large island located East of the Malaysian peninsula.We landed in Borneo on a Friday night and were ready for an outdoor and wildlife adventure. I feel sometimes like Southeast Asia has a mix of amazing cities and incredible beaches, but no real hard core outdoor scene. I miss the solitude of the outdoors in the US and the rugged, surprising, and always changing landscape of the great outdoors in general; this concrete jungle is wearing on me. Things in Asia are usually not very quiet (as evidenced by the constant hum of motorbikes, karaoke, and construction) and even when Carrie and I have been in remote places (remote means a town of about 30,000 people) as the population density is just higher here.

Our first night was really a transit night in Kota Kinabalu staying at Borneo GlobalBackpackers Hostel/Hotel (not a bad place to get some sleep) before we got to explore Wild Borneo, but we had fun eating street food and talking to a nice local man who was able to practice his English (fairly successfully) with us.

We arrived at almost dawn into Sandakan and were off traveling by cars, buses, and boats for the next few hours.

The first stop was at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, where we got to see rehabilitated orphaned Orangutans. It was not as touristy and caged as it sounds, and in fact it was quite wild. The sanctuary itself is 5,529 hectares (13,662 acres for some) reserve where Orangutans are rescued from injury or illegal pet owners and gradually allowed to roam freely in the entire Sanctuary and in some cases the Orangutans are returned to the wild completely. We were able to witness the feeding of the orangutans, which was fascinating to see how human the Orangutans were at times, how agile they were with their feet and hands, and yet how clumsy they were when walking around. There about six orangutans in total feeding at this particular platform including an adorable baby.

 
 

We also saw some macaque monkeys and a rhinoceros hombill bird that had come to try and steal food from the orangutans. The monkeys were described by our British tourist companions as “cheeky fellows”.

After Sepilok we rode through Sandakan (which took five minutes) and boarded a boat to cruise up the Kinabatangan River for two nights in a river lodge where we would get to do river safari cruises and sleep in the real jungle.

Fish hung by the villagers of the Seaside Water Village

The four hour total boat ride was somewhat tiring, but we were lucky to have a pit stop at the Abai River Lodge (wished we had stayed a night here) and we saw some great scenery and wildlife.

On the trip up the river we saw locals zipping around in what were almost the size of model boats with lawnmower engines (I want one), we also saw numerous birds and a few more macaque monkeys.
But the highlight was a Borneo Elephant (aka Borneo Pygmy Elephant) which was literally an elephant just shrunken down to about 70% of the size of other Asian elephants, luckily our guide could smell the single elephant even with our boat cruising quickly up river. Our guide described the small as a “ripped and damp vegetation smell”.

Rocket Boat for Two
Pygmy Elephant

Once we reached the Kinabatangan River Lodge we had a few hours to rest and then were off on our evening safari cruise.

The safari cruise reminded me of the jungle cruise in Disneyland except it was real and the animals were real, but luckily we had no natives throwing spears at us. The evening cruise was up a small tributary of the main Kinabatangan River and allowed us to get much closer to all the birds, monkeys, and other wildlife. We were lucky to again see some macaque monkeys, a number of Mandarin Pied and Black Hornbills, and this
highlight on this trip was the Proboscis Monkeys.

Hornbill
Hornbill
Macaque monkey

The proboscis monkeys are native only to Borneo and have an elongated nose, a large belly, and a very unique sounding call. It was fascinating to see and hear them as they settled down for the evening to sleep. They congregated high up in trees and were always seen in large groups.

Proboscis Monkey

As the light was fading we headed back to the lodge for dinner and then off to sleep. It was wonderful to hear all the jungle sounds of bats, birds, bugs, monkeys, etc. It was also fantastic to see stars shining to brightly after all these months in the urban jungle and light pollution.

Friendly Resident of the Lodge
 

The next day started with a morning cruise to an Oxbow Lake and was highlighted by an Orangutan Nest (yes they setup nests in trees, the only in the great apes that does so) as well as a large amount of bird sightings. We returned mid morning for a restful afternoon of snake sighting, bird watching and the most important part, beer drinking and massage.

Egret on our way to the Oxbow Lake

Early evening we had another cruise highlighted by a Malaysian Owl, Silver Leaf Monkeys, Proboscis Monkeys, and a Rhinoceros Hornbill and Wrinkled Hornbill. We also almost tipped over the boat due to an overzealous passenger yelling about a hornbill but luckily we all stayed dry.

Hornbill

As we headed back to the Lodge we were able to get a sunset and after dinner again enjoyed the stars in the sky.

The painful 6am wakeup call the next morning allowed us to devour breakfast and head back to Sandakan for our boat ride to Selingan Island in Turtle Islands National Park.

Selingan Island is a Green and Hawksbill Sea Turtle hatchery and sanctuary where they collect turtle eggs as they are laid, protect the eggs until they are hatched, and then release the hatchlings into the sea. All of this is to help protect and therefore increase the sea turtle population for these two species.

We spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach and snorkeling before observing the miracle of turtle birth.

Blue Lipped Giant Clam on our Snorkeling Trip

Luckily we didn’t have to wait all night (it was a quick labor) as our time came around 8:30pm. We were stewarded by the rangers to witness a mother Green turtle lay approximately 100 eggs. Then we saw the park ranger place these eggs into the nesting/incubation stations, and the finally got to see about 70 hatchlings (hatched that day, but laid about 60 days ago) released into the sea.

It was absolutely surreal to see the entire process with the turtle digging a hole to lay the eggs and then cover it and the hatchlings being release moved so fast you could barely see them. They were desperate to get to the ocean and start their swim to the current.

When you realize how difficult it is for the mothers to move on land and how far the babies have to swim it is truly remarkable that sea turtle can survive at all.

We headed back to our rustic chalets and fell asleep to the waves crashing on the beach, it was our last night in the Wild before a return to Singapore.

Enjoying the Beach (notice the turtle hole/nest behind)
Hatchery
Turtle Laying Eggs
All the Eggs in One Bucket
 
Measuring the Turtle
Hatchlings
Hatchlings running to the sea
Turtle Tire Tracks

The only thing to note on our return to Singapore is that when transferring in Kota Kinabalu, we flew into Terminal 1 and out of Terminal 2, which sounds rather unexciting until you realize that the terminals are so far apart and so disconnected that you have to take a taxi to get from one terminal to the other. It is all very confusing as the departure screens show both terminals despite the lack of ability to transfer between terminals.  thus, this is warning to future KK passengers: Terminal 1 is on one side of the runway and Terminal 2 is on the far other side of the runway and not connected in any way by foot.

Luckily we had some extra time built into our schedule.

I would highly recommend this trip to anyone but as mentioned I would stay one night at Abai Lodge and I would definitely recommend S.I. Tours in Borneo that setup majority of the trip.

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