09.05.2017 - 04.06.2017 30 °C
Arriving in a new area, city or island is always exciting, even within the same country. Some things are the same or only slightly different, while others take some time to get used to. In the case of Kota Kinabalu, the main difference was the amount of power outages throughout the day. Taking the headlamp with us became normal procedure, whether going into town or eating at the Indian place around the corner.
Eager to see Borneo’s famous wildlife we set out on a trip to the Weston Wetlands, around 100km west of town. The huge river delta is famed for proboscis monkeys that live on it’s shores and the fireflies that appear in the trees after sunset. Both proved easy to find with our excellent guide Kelly, and after our boat turned the first corner we were face to face with a whole family of the long-nosed friends. Fun fact: The nose of a male proboscis monkey in the wild will grow much larger than it would for instance in a zoo. This is because of the competition between males in the wild – females prefer the bigger nose. So there it is guys – size matters.
Moving further south we spent some healing but cold time in the ‘Hallelujah’ mountain resort, located about halfway up 4095m high Mount Kinabalu. Southeast Asia’s highest peak was covered in clouds most of the time so we didn’t climb it, but did take on several of the hiking trails in the national park. In order to get away from the National Park again we literally had to ‘catch’ a bus, which required quick reflexes after it raced around a blind corner. But we managed, and a few hours of palm-oil plantation views later we arrived in Sepilok.
For once we allowed ourselves some luxury and stayed in a resort (dorm room) at the edge of the rainforest reserve. This proved to be a great base to discover the famous Orang Utan rehabilitation and Bornean Sun Bear conservation center, both located within walking distance. The swimming pool with jungle view made it all the better, with so many birds, squirrels, lizards and other wildlife just walking and flying around you.
Seeing the Orang Utan’s in the semi-wild was an amazing experience and sometimes almost like looking in a mirror – their behavior and facial expressions are so human-like that you can tell if they are feeling naughty, guilty or anything else. Young apes are taught that they should not walk on the ground because it is dangerous, but climb instead. Seeing them do it anyway when the caretakers aren’t looking is really funny. During a sudden rain shower one of the adult apes picked up a banana leaf and tried to use it as an umbrella to keep herself dry. Standing in the rain ourselves, we could totally sympathize with her. Both Orang Utan’s and Sun Bears face such threats that they could go extinct in the near future… let’s hope we can find a way to live side by side with these incredible creatures before it is too late.
Welcome to the jungle baby… at Kinabatangan River! From our little boat we were lucky enough to spot a huge Orang Utan male in the wild, complete with lots of fur and big cheekbones (cue King Louie song!). Hornbills, black silver leaf monkeys and even a crocodile made an appearance, but the absolute highlight was seeing the local herd of pygmy elephants crossing the river right in front of us. At least 30-40 animals, big and small took turns and went for it, holding the trunk above water for air. The smile stayed stuck on our face as the last of them made their way back into the jungle on the other side. Oh and pygmy elephants… aren’t actually as small as their name would suggest!
We rounded up our ‘tour de Borneo’ in the coastal town of Sandakan, where we washed the jungle out of our clothes and observed the many navy ships in the harbor to watch for Philippine rebels on the other side. We felt safe and well protected while nomming on delicious noodles and listening to surprisingly good karaoke.
Backtracking a little to KL and the east coast, our last stop in Malaysia was the longest and most meaningful at the same time – Tioman Island. Although getting there was another nightmare thanks to the ferry company. After almost 5 months of travelling we felt we wanted to do something useful and chose to stay as volunteers at the Juara Turtle Project that we visited earlier. The project is dedicated to the conservation of green and hawksbill sea turtles and Juara bay is a fantastic and isolated ‘office’ to work in. With beach on your doorstep and jungle through the backdoor we suddenly had all sorts of jobs to do and schedules to keep to again! Oh the horror….
Between the staff and volunteer team the jobs were assigned every afternoon. Either sweeping the floor in the morning, doing ‘turtle talks’ for tourists or school children in the afternoon or getting up at 1:00AM to patrol the beach for nesting turtles. Every day there was something going on, be it an oil spill that washed up in the bay (which we cleaned!), taking care of a poor kitten that was attacked by dogs and paralyzed or as simple as a chicken sneaking into our room, panicking and catapulting itself into our mosquito net at 7:00AM in the morning – all part of volunteer life.
The whole team (mix of local and foreign people) was super nice and the project is well connected with the local community so we got a chance to catch a glimpse of life on the island by helping in an organic garden and following local cooking classes. We also did lots of other nice things like trekking, snorkeling and playing beach volleyball with the neighbors. Among the staff were two marine biologists from whom we learned loads about turtles and corals. We assisted in starting up a reef conservation project by diving up damaged coral fragments to be regenerated on a tree-like structure in the sea just in front of our place.
All in all the experience was great and we didn’t really want to leave. A quick look at the map however showed that we are not moving very fast across Asia so far. So much to see and do! But mature as we are, we made the grown-up decision to pick up pace and move to Thailand as our next stop. Glorious food, massages and buckets await us!!!
Michael & Isabella