Sabah, Malaysia – Feb 14 – 25
I caught the 6:30 AM bus from the bus depot in Brunei to the Serasa Ferry Terminal and then the ferry to Pulau Labuan, Sabah Malaysia at 8:45. It was then a few hour wait for the 1 PM ferry to Kota KInabalu. The 115km trip only took 3 hours on the megafast boat with distant views of the north coast of Borneo. Many oil derricks were out in the water. I then had a 30 minute walk to my hostel from the ferry terminal.
Kota Kinabalu (pop 450,000) is another big city with huge shopping malls. I was here for two nights with no particular plans other than to find a few of the things I needed for the climb of Mt. Kinabalu. The Lok Kawi Wildlife Park is 25 km southeast of KK with an opportunity to see some of the critters that seem difficult to see in the wild – orang-utans, gibbons, proboscis and spider monkeys, elephants, Malay Tigers, snakes, hornbills, macaws, and various deer. It is an attractive place an an old rubber plantation established by the British in the early 1900s. Off the beaten track, i hitchhiked back getting two quick rides into KK.
Mount Kinababu is Malaysia’s first Unesco World Heritage site. 60,000 people make the gruelling climb up the 4,095m peak every year and I had arranged the trip through a tour company. Paying a premium as a solo traveler, it is not cheap at almost $600 for a 2day/1night trip. The high cost is determined by the cost of accommodation in the huts half way up the mountain. Controlled by one private company, Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, 200 beds and thus 200 permits are issued daily. I was picked up by the owner of the tour company and alone driven two hours to the base of the mountain where I stored my big pack and met my guide, a tiny 43-year-old Malay who was very attentive for the whole trip. We drive the 4kms up to the Timphon Gate at 1866m to start the six kilometer thighmaster trail to the Pendant Hut at 3280m. It is a well designed trail with many stairs and rock steps, and 7 small shelters with bathrooms. Drizzling with a few brief interludes of sun, I was pretty knackered after the climb. When the only exercise I have gotten in 3 months is walking up the stairs in the hotel, it has been hard to maintain fitness.
The usual routine is wake up at 1:30 AM, have a light breakfast and a start at 2:30 to reach the summit for sunrise. The climb the previous day was cancelled because of rain and it rained hard all evening but everyone was in bed by 7:30 hopeful that the rain would stop. It was impossible to find out how often they close the gate at the start of the summit trail but it became apparent that any rain resulted in a closure. The entire mountain is a gigantic granite massif with great grippy rock but apparently parts get slippery when wet. They have been especially cautious since a German woman fell to her death a few weeks previously. Things weren’t looking good at 2:30 as it was raining hard and indeed we were all back in bed at 3:30.
At 7 the next morning the clouds had lifted and we were able to see views of the mountain above us. A huge granite wall looms above the huts with multiple spires jutting from the ridge. There are 10 spires, several of them technical climbs but the highest is Lowe’s Peak which is not technical. There are three descent routes and everyone in our hut had signed up for one of the two via faratta routes down. Via faratta means “iron road” and consists of a bolted route with steel cables and walkways that allow inexperienced hikers to descend vertical walls safely. Besides being all connected by a safety climbing rope, every participant has two locking karabiners connecting you to the steel cable. At each spiral bolt, the rope is disconnected and the karabiners are individually moved to the other side so that you are always “connected”. A chance of a fall is theoretically zero. There were 8 of us slated to do the Lowe’s Peak Via Faratta, the highest via faratta in the world at 3770m. The entire route is 1.2km long and contains two “bridges” along with the cable. At the end it joins the Mountain Torque, a 430m via faratta also with a bridge. We were briefed and practiced the techniques the afternoon before.
For the price and with a high likelihood of cancellation, Mt Kinabalu should be missed. It is a huge rain magnet and it seems to rain most days. As it is difficult to get a permit on short notice, trying to time the trip with good weather is impossible. The only people who get to the top on rainy days seem to be ones who go the entire way in one day. The gates to the summit remain open in the daytime. Doing either of the via farattas would not be possible.
With the summit climb cancelled, we were up at 7 for a good breakfast and the descent down the trail. It took half the time as the ascent but was a real thigh burner. After retrieving my pack, I walked the 100m to a bus stop and was on my way east to Sepilok, 5 hours down the road.
Sepilok is home to the Orang utan Rehabilitation Centre which takes in orphaned orang utans, nurses them back to health and “reeducates” them to be able to function in the wild. It is the most popular place on earth to see Asia’s great ginger ape in its native habitat. One of four orang utan sanctuaries in the world, it was established in 1964, and now covers 40 sq-kms. I stayed at Paganakan Dii, a lodge set in a deer sanctuary. They provide regular shuttles to the sanctuary. By 9:30 there were hundreds on the viewing platform. Bananas and durian were dumped on a platform in the jungle and soon two orang utans descended down a long rope and we watched them eat for an hour or two. The durian was the clear favorite and the biggest ape grabbed a piece in each of his 4 limbs and climbed up into a tree to eat in private. A silver macaque ate the bananas. The orang utan is the only great ape that lives only in trees rarely coming down to the ground. With an arm span of up to 8 feet, they are marvelously suited to climbing. Infants stay with their mother until 5-6 years of age.
The center has a good video and is next to walking trails and a sun bear sanctuary. Near Sepilok is also a proboscis monkey sanctuary.
After two nights at Pananakan Dii, it was a 6-hour bus ride to Semporna (pop 140,000), a lackluster city for access to the Semporna Archipelago with some of the best diving in the world. I was booked for three dives per day for 3 days staying on the island of Mabul. Sipadan is a uninhabited island that is a sanctuary so no fishing is allowed leaving supposedly pristine coral and fish with many turtles and sharks.
The five-hour bus trip to Semporna passed confluent palm oil plantations, broken only by the occasional town. Booking a dive trip is an adventure in itself. There are 12 dive companies on Mabul plus an oil rig just off the island, all with their own web sites, but in addition they are represented by many tour companies. It gets confusing as it is difficult to assess what each offers. I eventually booked with Borneo Land Adventures, a tour company that deals with Mabul Backpackers, one of the dive companies on the island, who also arranged my Mt Kinabalu trip. This simplified the paying process as they use PayPal (direct bank transfers to a foreign business are not allowed by my bank at home except from my local branch, an obvious impossibility when traveling). It is easy to dive on Mabul and Kapalai Islands but permits are required to dive on Sipadan Island and only 120 are offered per day, and must be arranged in advance (although in reality most companies have permits that are available on short notice, but who can figure all this out). Some of the dive companies are mammoth – Scuba Junkies for example has 150 guests. I talked to 2 Canadians who dived with them, but they had many complaints about the food and hot rooms. They all offer the full range of Padi courses but many of the guests, especially the ubiquitous Chinese, only snorkel.
Chinese have become the pariahs of all world travelers, who along with Russians, Israelis, and French, are asocial, behave in cliques speaking only their own language, and are known for their impolite behavior. Surprisingly more people come to snorkel here than dive. Few Chinese swim and they use cumbersome bright orange life jackets and large orange inner tubes. I guess they don’t realize it is easy to float in salt water swimming ability is not necessary (I can barely swim). The boats often have up to 30 people on them. It would be a mediocre experience. Muslim women all wear headscarves that make them unusually unattractive. To go in the water, they wear a one piece black nylon suit that covers everything including their head plus a cloth dress.
Mabul Backpackers (sipadanborneo.com) is the cheapie of the lot, but it turned out to be a great choice. I had a room to myself, there were only 9 divers there, the food was great, and all the dive instructors and guides were foreigners, all Europeans. From past experiences, you want to avoid local guides who don’t have the same standards or the interest in finding all the unusual fish. It is nice to have attentive guides who look after you in a professional way. Their main disadvantage was a poor dive boat and fish guide books that were disintegrating. It was a rough 45 minute boat ride to Mabul from Semporna.
On Mabul, we had five dives with relatively poor coral but some interesting fish – huge broadclub cuttlefish, a giant green turtle, reef scorpionfish, flathead crocodile fish, schooling batfish, octopus, lionfish, firedart gobi, and many turtles. The highlight was the three dives on day two at Sipadan – great visibility, huge variety of fish and coral, many white tipped reef sharks and barracuda on every dive. At Drop Off, a site with a 600m wall, we saw a school of 50 bumphead parrotfish, a very big fish. Sipadan was with another dive company, Billabong, with two native guides. They pointed out nothing and only went through the paces. The Billabong Resort has rats in the rooms and bad food. Sipadan is really only suited for advanced divers because of the strong currents. I had a very weird occurrence on this last dive. About 15 minutes into the dive at 16m, my air in both regulators was suddenly blocked. One of the guides was near and I was able to buddy breath and calm down. Just as suddenly things returned to normal and we finished the dive. The guides back at our resort stated that this was very uncommon but could only be do to debris in the tank blocking the valve!!!! The Malay guides were rather blaise about this life threatening experience. On day three we had one dive on Kapalai Island with a large 5 star resort and saw peacock mantis shrimp, juvenile frogfish, boxer shrimp, morays, schooling barracuda, leaf fish lovers, and nudibranchs (nembrotha, flabellina, chemodoris magnifica).
The Kinabatangan River is Sabah’s longest, 560km of chocolate-brown water lined with rainforest. I had arranged a 3day/2night tour with Bilit Kinabatangan Heritage B&B (bilitkinabatangan.com), a small operation that had good reviews. After a 4 hour bus ride back towards KK, I was picked up at the Meeting Point along with a pleasant older German woman who winters in Bali every year but was on a visa run in Sabah. I had a dorm all to myself, basic but clean. River cruises are very popular with dozens of lodges offering the same trips. On a two-hour downriver trip and up a small tributary we saw many long-tailed macaques, silver langurs (youngsters are bright orange and only along Kinabatagan does an orange variant persist into adulthood), proboscis monkeys (they only exist in Borneo), monitor lizards, a gorgeous ivory-billed kingfisher, and rhinoceros hornbills. At one point there were 8 tour boats with about 70 tourists trying to see an invisible snake up in a tree. With only two of us in the boat and the only ones with binoculars, we had a superior tour. Oil palm plantations come down to the river in a few places and it seems they are encroaching right behind the jungle lining the river. That night, there was a jungle walk that was a washout for critters. Up at six for another boat trip up river, we saw more of all three kinds of monkeys, a kingfisher, an orang utan, a huge 5m long crocodile, river otters and an oriental pied hornbill with a huge white bill.
A 3 hour jungle walk was on the agenda for the morning of day two. After sloshing around in the mud being eaten by mosquitos and attacked by leeches for an hour, we encouraged our guide to turn around. This is all secondary growth with few critters. We could hear many birds but they are all hidden high up in the canopy. If virgin rain forest is desired in Sabah, the best place to visit is in the Danum Valley. The afternoon tour was a repeat of the first day with most of the same animals seen. We did see a snake bird which fishes then sits high in trees with its wings spread out to dry. That night we went on a night boat trip. With an incredibly strong search light, our guide spotted several owls and monkeys. This guy had an unbelievable ability to spot animals. The third morning saw us up at 6 again for another river trip where we saw many crocodiles. Many of the people who went downriver saw pygmy elephants. Besides the orang utan, elephants are the iconic species at Kinabatangan.
I then had a long day on the bus back to Kota Kinabalu to catch my flight to Taiwan. The flight was at 6AM so I took the evening bus out to the airport and slept there on the floor.