We hopped on a bus from Kota Kinabalu, known simply as KK, towards the northern tip of Borneo, known as … well .. the tip of Borneo. We hadn’t spent any time at a beach since January and thought we were long overdue. Plus we had seen a commercial for it on one of our flights showing turquoise waters, empty beaches and what we figured was warm water … who wouldn’t want to go check it out! Plus we had just found out about Kevin’s internship with Kiva … our adventure was slowly coming to an end. Time for some R&R. This area is quite off the beaten track as most tourists in Borneo seem to be on tours and those tours are focused on wildlife and caves … as they should be. So it was nice to go somewhere that only a few backpackers had discovered and have a certain lack of activities available allowing us to lounge around a be lazy with a clear conscious!
We arrived in Kudat (the main town of the area) and were picked up by Howard, an English guy, who had settled in the area about 10+ years ago and opened an eco resort up by the tip of Borneo called Tampat Do Aman. He drove us to the guest house (one can’t really call it a resort as it’s pretty basic but still nice) and we dumped our bags in our longhouse accommodations. Longhouses are traditional homes in Borneo – it’s basically a long bamboo house built on a platform with rooms on each side and a hallway in the middle. There are no windows, just slats, and a bed inside with a mosquito net (an absolute necessity in the jungle!). My favorite part of this place were the outdoor showers – you could look at the jungle or the night sky while washing off the days sweat and sand from hanging at the beach – one day I too will have an outdoor shower!!!
We spent 8 days here enjoying our hammocks, catching up on our reading (I am currently reading the Game of Thrones series – captivating!!!) and doing short hikes and excursions during the day. The water was a perfect temperature and with the sandy bottom it was that gorgeous turquoise color that you see in travel ads. The only downside? when it wasn’t breezy the sand flies would come out !! Torture!!! At least it was torture for me … it seemed that as long as I was in the area they didn’t bother Kevin but as soon as I left he would start to get attacked too! There were also mosquitoes in the mornings and evenings so I have to say that we both left with a variety of bites. Guess there is always a price to pay for being in paradise!
On our last evening there we watched a huge storm brewing out at sea. Water funnels formed in the clouds – a kind of water typhoon that actually suck fish and anything else in its path up into them and redeposit them elsewhere. Maybe that’s where the expression it’s raining cats and dogs comes from (just kidding.) The lightening in the clouds was amazing and we watched it for a long time marveling at power of Mother Nature.
We left Kudat on a tiny plane (15 seater) and headed south east to Sepilok. Sepilok is the home of a famous Orangutan sanctuary as well as the starting point for a river safari up the Kalimantan river. We had booked a really basic lodge (think wood hut without windows or doors) for our 3 day/2 night trip up the river. We were less focused on our sleeping arrangements and more focused on checking out and finding the local wildlife. Many other travelers had told us this was their favorite trip in Borneo, probably because you spend a lot of time in a boat looking for wildlife. Well that and the fact that there are now so many palm oil plantations in Borneo that the wildlife is being pushed into a smaller and smaller space so it is easier to see them… sad isn’t it? Ironically one of the uses of palm oil is for bio fuel … so an environmentally sound option that is detrimental to the environment… go figure. I guess the population of planet Earth has just gotten way to big.
After 1 1/2 hours drive we arrived at our starting point for the river trip – there were 7 of us (nice small number) and we headed out up river to Uncle Tan’s jungle camp. It was really cool kicking back in the boat and watching the landscape go by. I have to say for about the first 45 minutes we could see the palm oil plantations with a small jungle barrier in front of the river but the further we went the less plantations we could see and the more jungle started pushing through. We got to see some horn bills, a storm stock (an endangered stork). some proboscis monkeys and kingfishers along the way. We arrived at the jungle camp to the local team working hard at damage control – the river had flooded a few days back and the camp was still partially underwater and it had just started raining again….
That night we went out on a night boat trip which was neat – we saw a couple of owls (these had been on my wishlist) but failed to spot any crocodiles … apparently there are quite a few that live in this river, so no swimming. Back at camp there was a group of undergrad Biology students from Michigan, on a study abroad program, who were whooping it up with the staff – they played music and table drums (that means that they were banging their hands on the tables) until late in the evening … so much for a relaxing jungle experience – guess I am just getting old. Karma is a bitch however as the next morning one of them was telling us how in the night he felt something pulling on his big toe, he got up and looked around and couldn’t figure out if someone was playing a joke on him. The next morning he found a big hole in his mosquito net .. it turns out a rat (they have giant rats here) had bitten a hole in his mosquito net and was gnawing on his toe. Ok, freak out, right??? I would have shit my pants and run screaming around the camp. As if that story wasn’t bad enough, when I went to but on my hiking boots in the morning, I shook them out and about 100 fire ants swarmed out … I had to leave my boots in the sun as the ants had seemingly made a cozy nest in the toe of my boots. Ewww .. gross. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well the next night.
An afternoon boat safari and night hike had been planned for that evening but as things would turn out it poured the next afternoon for 5 hours so our activities were cancelled and the camp reflooded so we were relocated into a different hut with 3 other guys (yes! you read in my last blog – NEVER another dorm! DOH! That promise didn’t last long). Did I say Karma is a bitch? Well I guess I have some bad karma to make up for….
We finished the trip with a nice long morning boat ride and saw oodles of birds – from eagles, to hornbills to the tiny but beautiful kingfisher. After a nice breakfast we hopped back in the boat for the ride back to Sepilok and as luck would have it we saw an orangutan on our way back. Really cool to see them in the wild! They are the largest tree dwelling mammals on Earth and along with the other great Apes (gorilla and chimpanzees) they share 96.4% of their DNA with ours. In looking at their faces I can’t imagine how anyone could think humans were not related to them. Today they are considered an endangered species and are only found in Borneo and Sumatra.
We arrived back in Sepilok and checked into our hotel. It felt like luxury – A/C, running water and a nice mattress. It’s the little things. Once again it reminded me how privileged we are. Just from 3 days out in the jungle our clothes smelled moldy and everything was damp. I can’t imagine how people live out there all year round. It must be tough.
We spent our time in Sepilok visiting the Orangutan rehabilitation center. They rehabilitate and rescue orangutans that are found in the wild and injured, orphan orangutans and those that they free from captivity. Once they are healed and are ready they are set free in the wild to fend for themselves. The center has been open since 1964 and today there are between 40-60 living free in the reserve.
One of the most adorable things I have seen is the nursery they have, it is full of baby orangutans and they are full of beans! It is hilarious to watch as they play and literally monkey around. In the wild a baby orangutan stays with its mom for the first 6 years of its life – longer than any other mammal. They live to be about 40-60 years old! Another species that the greed of man is pushing by the wayside. I feel honored and blessed to have seen these gentle giants.