From the southwest of Sarawak to the northeast of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo's two states offer excellent opportunities for wildlife watching and other nature experiences. Even though logging operations and poaching have contributed to a sharp decline of wildlife and primary jungle over the last years, there is still much to see. Now is by no means too late for conservation efforts, although time may soon be running out. Malaysian Borneo's nature attractions are fairly easily accessible, but not too easily. Whatever you do, there is some effort involved either in getting there or staying there.
The boat landing to Bako National Park is a short bus ride from Kuching. The boat ride itself depends heavily on tidal water levels, from a smooth journey to being stuck on a sand bank. Accommodation is adequate if you do not mind the occasional rat in the toilet. This one dove away a few seconds after the photo was taken, and I could watch its tail ferociously whip left and right as the rat tried to get to the other side - whatever side this may be. Besides rats and food or bag-snatching macaques, many other wildlife species are easily spotted either around the camp or on short hikes through the jungle: water monitors, flying lemurs, Bornean bearded pigs, snakes like the Wagler's pit viper, and proboscis monkeys.
A 45min twin otter flight takes us to Bario near the Indonesian border, a small Kelabit village still inaccessible by road. During the day, we explore the village and jungle paths, and in the evening, a local takes us into the jungle on a frog hunting mission along a creek. In the daytime, we carefully watch where we put our feet as we hike through terrain infested with leeches, and still, we manage to have twelve leeches clinging to us in less than an hour (kN wins 9 to 3). With our frog hunting guide however, we are fully occupied with simply keeping up with his pace, and are running through the jungle in the dark on a nonexistent path, never mind leeches, other crawly creatures, or mud puddles. We have a strong headlight which we use to shine from one side of the creek to the other. Our guide would point the light to a spot on the opposite bank of the creek, look at us with a big smile saying, "Frog!", memorize the location, climb down our bank, wade through the creek, climb up the other bank, sneak up to and wait for a few seconds a couple of meters away from the memorized location, and then suddenly leap forward, grabbing something with one hand. We try as hard as we can, but the only time we ever see a frog is when our guide comes back with yet another frog in his hand.
A steep trail leads to the top of over 4000m high Mt. Kinabalu. The views from the summit are stunning and well worth the effort to get there. Spending the night in the base camp at about two thirds of the way is necessary to get to the summit early enough for sunrise. Nights are cold, food is expensive for Malaysian standards, and guides are mandatory even though the trail is well established and cannot be missed if the weather is clear. The last part of the trail climbs across an open rock face, completely unprotected from the forces of nature. Hikers must sign in at a small emergency shelter before attempting this last part, and sign out once they have returned from the summit. White ropes are strung on the ground all the way to the top, helping through the most vertical stretches of the climb and making sure no one gets lost. Nevertheless, weather conditions change rapidly and are easily underestimated. In these situations the enforced guide system shows its benefits, besides providing employment for many local villagers. Being responsible for the group, the guide has the authority to stop a group from ascending any further if it is too risky, thus controlling overly ambitious hikers.
A short boat ride down the Kinabatangan river takes us to the basic jungle camp of Uncle Tan: a series of roofed wooden huts on stilts, each with one back wall, tarps on two sides, three double mattresses on the floor, and three mosquito nets. There are bucket showers and bucket toilets to which water is pumped from the nearby lake. The outdoor kitchen and adjacent tables and chairs are sheltered from sun and rain by a big tarp. A generator provides electricity for a few hours in the evening. There are hammocks and a volleyball net and many paths through the jungle. A python lives in the trunk of the volleyball net tree, and chameleons and poisonous caterpillars inhabit the trees surrounding the camp. Hand-sized spiders spin huge webs above the huts from one tree to another, and water monitors, macaques, and Bornean bearded pigs visit the camp frequently. During night safaris with a boat along the Kinabatangan river, we scan the water and shore line for the glowing red eyes of crocodiles as they reflect the strong search light of the boat. In the trees, we find owls and sleeping proboscis monkeys or macaques which, when woken up and frightened, tend to surprise boat passengers by peeing down on the boat. During early morning safaris, we see many more birds such as kingfishers, hornbills, snakebirds, and egrets. On treks through the jungle, we watch a group of fish otters on their early morning hunt for food, legions of insects such as this strange hairy white one, and most impressive of all, a mother and baby orangutan. After an initial phase of getting acquainted with each other which involves us carefully trying to get as close as possible and the orangutans throwing branches at us to establish their personal space, we silently watch them for hours eating fruits, moving through the tops of trees, and building their nest for the night.
The camp is run by a welcoming and laid-back handful of young men with trained eyes for wildlife spotting either on boat safaris or jungle treks. Additionally, these guys pump water from the lake to the bathrooms, keep the camp in good condition, play the guitar, cook all meals, and generally help with any kind of problem. The good meals are a welcome change from the usual Malaysian fare and include a lot of jungle food. For breakfast, jackfruit or banana donuts, noodles, banana cake, toast and eggs, and fruits are alternatingly served. Lunch and dinner always consist of rice with several vegetable and meat dishes such as cabbage, pumpkin, banana flowers, papaya flowers, other jungle greens, eggplant, yam fritters, cuttlefish, chicken curry, shrimps in batter, beef, chicken gizzards, fish, tofu, and eggs.
Last but not least, a speed boat shuttles me to the divers' paradise of Pulau Sipadan, an island off the northeastern coast of Malaysian Borneo close to the south of the Philippines. The island is surrounded by a coral reef, allowing for some spectacular wall dives. Though generally expensive, it is reasonable in terms of cost per dive because as many as nine dives can be done in 48 hours. Praised by Jacques Cousteau, Pulau Sipadan is one of those places where encounters with big sea creatures are not a matter of luck, but guaranteed. Green turtles and hawksbill turtles are so common that the divemasters on Pulau Sipadan speak of turtle traffic. I see turtles swimming or resting on small balconies of the wall on each dive, day or night, except one. This is the one where I am hanging onto a piece of rock while the current is trying to push me away. Right above me, there are 400 barracudas in barrel formation, while in front of me, there is another huge school of trevally. Just to the right, there are hundreds of small colorful coral reef fish. Have I mentioned the occasional reef or gray shark passing by? And then, there is this leopard shark sleeping at a depth of just nine meters. Understandably, all this keeps me mesmerized for an entire dive and distracted from the turtles which surely had to be around. The first night on Pulau Sipadan, I watch an excellent video about the underwater highlights of this part of the world. I never thought that I would get to see so many of them in the wild in just two days!