Counting elephants up Mount Kinabalu

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Lows Peak, on the craggy summit of Mount Kinabalu, is 4,095 metres or 13,435 ft above sea level and is the highest peak in Southeast Asia, the 20th highest mountain in the world and one of the biggest attractions in Borneo.  This is because it’s a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most accessible peaks.  Lynn and I decided to climb Mount Kinabalu as part of our Borneo adventure – she is a mountain girl and I wanted to take on the challenge.  The path is clearly marked, with steps making the more tricky passages passable. The most popular itinerary is to make the climb and decent over two days, staying overnight at the Laban Rata rest house, which is at 3,270 metres or 10,730 feet.  We booked to ascend to Laban Rata via the longer (8 km) and more scenic Mesilau summit trail, descending via the shorter (6 km), and more popular Timpohon trail. Continue reading

Danum Valley, Borneo, Malaysia

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Borneo conjures up all different types of images, but probably the most common is ancient rainforests teaming with diversity and danger. So spending time at rainforest was next stop on our land based tour. Lynn, my dive buddy, and myself researched where was best and we settled on Danum Valley – a near pristine ancient rainforest and conservation area covering 43,800 hectares and is often described as a paradise for nature lovers.

Much scientific research is conducted in the Danum Valley conservation area and there is a field centre which attracts researchers, specialists and academics from all over the world.  The centre comes under the South East Asia Rainforest Research Programme activities, with may other scientific research establishments affiliated to it, including the Royal Society.

My non-scientific journey to Danum Valley started at Lahad Datu.  It’s an 90 km drive to the middle of Danum Valley, mostly on an un-metalled road. Lynn and I looked out of the window and we knew we made the right decision – mile upon mile of trees that seemed to touch the sky, with a never-ending curtain of green in every imaginable shade.  Here is a short clip of the journey…

On arrival at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge the sounds of the rainforest welcomed us.  Our guide for the next three days was the eternally cheerful Dani, one of the more experienced guides at Danum Valley.  I have to admit, what he showed and shared with us was simply incredible.  As we trekked around the Lodge we were in sensory overload. Here is a small selection of what we saw…

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We were very lucky and saw these oragutans within 10 minutes of starting our first walk! Amazing.

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We also saw pig tail macaques, long tailed macaques and  gibbons (well, I heard them but others saw them).

Trees

The trees at Danum Valley are spectacular.  Wandering around it is easy to get a sore neck! Some hundreds of years old and many were 70 m plus in height.  One of the tallest in Danum Valley was right next to our chalet – it soared up to 83 m – not enough to get in one frame!

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As well as the height and age of the trees, the root systems that supports getting water up to the leaves at the top of the canopy are also fascinating and come in all shapes and sizes.  I found the most interesting trees to be the fig “strangler” trees. They wrap themselves around a host tree, which eventually dies as  the strangler tree  takes over its essential living space.  This is Dani’s favourite strangler tree – the host tree has long since died

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This one is famous – obviously for its size…

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Smaller root oddities also caught my eye…

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The forest floor

Leaves gently fall to the forest floor all day – this is part of the tropical rain-forest life-cycle.  As you look at the forest floor where the decaying process begins, it is easy to see the signs of new life.  This type of fungi was almost porcelain like and form a cup to gather the rainwater and extract essential elements, such as sulphur.  According to Dani, this type of fungus has also inspired Malaysian architects…

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Other fungus looked like pixie umbrellas.  Again, a beautiful design

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Some fungi that grow on trees and rotting trees ….

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The variety of lichens growing on and from trees were perhaps not very rare or dramatic, but they were pretty – and eye-catching…

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Also found on the forest floor were a number of ferns and begonias, which I used to find at church fete stalls in the UK!

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Insects are also prolific on the forest floor – I lost count how many different types of ants, termites, centipedes,  armadillidiidaes and the EVER present leeches.  I had a total of five leech bites.  I did a dance of fear the first time I discovered one on my arm, but by number five I was flicking them off like tiddly-winks.  Here are two that weren’t getting enough blood, so were fighting for each other to the death ….

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Birds

All day long Danum Valley is filled with music sung by birds and other creatures of the forest.  You didn’t have to go very far to see the birds either.  I took most of these images from the outside deck of the resort restaurant! You’ll need to look hard for the first one – extremely well camouflaged!

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As well as the wildlife, flora and fauna, Danum Valley has beautiful scenery and there are a number of lovely pools and waterfalls on the dozen or so treks around the Borneo Rainforest Lodge…

The Jacuzzi pool – this is lovely for a cooling swim

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The Serpent Falls – these were the prettiest I thought…

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Fairy Falls

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..and of course the beautiful River Danum…

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The most stunning scenery is best viewed on the world famous Danum Valley Canopy Walk

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The canopy walk is 300 m in length and rises to a maximum of 27 m above the forest floor, getting you very close to nature that is normally inaccessible …

Ground level entrance and view at three tier bridge point

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At sunset, sightings of flying squirrels are guaranteed – we saw about six.  No pictures – they are simply too fast!  Great views though… I loved this view as you can see both the sun setting and the mist rolling in…

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We also made it up to the canopy walk for sunrise – although it was a bit blurry.  A very calming way to start the day …

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 All the paths in Danum Valley around the Borneo Rainforest Lodge are very well maintained, scenic and not too challenging.

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All treks are guided too, so you cant get lost! Plus there is a map …

Map Credit: Borneo Rainforest Lodge http://www.borneonaturetours.com/www/brl_trailmap.aspx

Map Credit: Borneo Rainforest Lodge http://www.borneonaturetours.com/www/brl_trailmap.aspx

A lot of rainforest wildlife is nocturnal, so there are evening treks and night safaris.  We were lucky enough to see a number of exotic frogs in a pond close to the resort.  We also saw a very unusual frog in a puddle, carrying her young on her back.  Other night sights included some deer and a Malaysian civit, although we heard many more!

Overall

Over our three days we covered between 12 and 14 km of the most gorgeous and jaw dropping terrain that was home to .a very diverse and wonderful range of nature. It is a bucket list place and I would recommend it to anyone.  It is one of those few places I will never forget and ever thankful I was fortunate enough to visit. The rainforest really is pristine,  very peaceful and you are surrounded by the most incredible untouched treasure chest of mother nature.

How to get there

By Air – fly to Lahad Datu from KL or Kota Kinabalu.  Check with Malaysia Airlines for times.

By Road – Buses run from Kora Kinabalu and Sandakan.  This site seems to be a good source of information

Where to Stay

There are two options:

The Scientific Field Centre.  Accommodation is basic and functional.  Facilities are geared towards supporting scientists and researchers.  For futher information, check their website. this can be booked independetly

Borneo Rainforest Lodge.  The majority of visitors head to this purpose built luxury resort, built on a remote river spur 97 km from Lahat Datu. We registered on their website requesting further information, but neither of us received a reply.  Booking the Borneo Rainforest Lodge is best done via a tour operator.

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The dining room/verandah and restaurant cooking station. The food was incredibly good, and plentiful.

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 There is also a nicely stocked bar and a resort store selling leech socks, sundries and souvenirs.  We were a late booking so had a stunning deluxe room. And yes, that is an outdoor bath which was unbelievably good – and private!

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The resort is around 10 years old, and has been well maintained.  Unfortunately we had plumbing issues which never seemed to get resolved no matter how many times the maintenance man visited.  This was the only downside to an otherwise flawless visit to one of the most stunning places I have visited.

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Fish soup for breakfast – sampling Sipadans’ diving feast

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I first heard about Sipadan before I took up diving.  A backpacker told me about this amazing island with powder sand beaches, clear waters teaming with marine life and a 800 metre drop off (underwater cliff).   Others may have heard of  Sipadan after the 2000 kidnapping of 21 people from a Sipadan dive resort.  Nowadays there are no resorts on Sipadan island.  Daily access for divers and visitors is strictly controlled via a permit system and the island is discreetly well protected …

P1080712 My buddy Lynn and I decided to finally add Sipadan to our log books and booked up a week of diving at Borneo Divers.  They were the first to set up a dive centre in Sipadan back in 1984.  Borneo Divers in 1996…

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Sipadan no longer has resorts, partly as a result of the kidnapping but mainly because of application criteria for UNESCO World Heritage recognition.  Most divers stay at Mabul island, about a 20 minute boat ride away.  There are three main dive areas in and around  Sipadan:

  • Sipadan Island – reef diving
  • Mabul Island – muck and natural reef diving
  • Kapalai Reef – muck, shallow reef and artificial reef diving

Sipadan P1090408 My buddy Lynn and I were fortunate enough to get three days of diving at Sipadan.  More about the permit system towards the end of the post. When we dropped in and found ourselves among a huge school of jacks, we both knew Sipadan lived up to its reputation and place as a world-class dive destination. From then on, almost every dive, we saw turtles, white-tipped sharks and lots of schools of pelagic fish – and great visibility …

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The greatest abundance of fish were found at the most aptly named site Barracuda point.  It’s hard to describe how wonderful it feels to be in the middle of such large schools of amazing fish.  It really is like being in a huge bowl of live fish soup! In their excitement, many divers head straight over to the fish, but if you just “hang out” in the blue watching, they come to you…

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 Other schooling pelegics included masses of jacks and trevallys …

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 The topography at the drop off site was pretty amazing too…

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I thought I was seeing double here with these pennant fish – but there were plenty more…

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Another cute pair – fire dart gobies … P1090485

..and reef stalwarts – anemone fish ..

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 This piece of mooring debris also caught my attention – beautiful soft coral has converted it to a small hanging artificial reef! P1090502 On our last Sipadan diving day, our group included Derek, Alan and Ben.  Derek took some great go-pro footage and made this nice video clip…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Enbumto0BkE We dived four times each day at Sipadan.  Surface intervals are spent at what remains of the resort.  Toilets, showers and picnic facilities are on the island, with each resort bringing in food and beverages each day. There are also a few sunbeds. P1080720 Mabul The sites around Mabul offers a contrast to Sipadan, both in terms of topography and marine life.  As you can see from the images, the visibility isn’t as good as Sipadan, but there are some pretty reefs on the western side of the island, with the others mostly muck diving sites. My favourite Mabul site was under the Sea Adventures dive resort – a converted oil rig.  Guaranteed sightings on every dive  includes a resident giant grouper, crocodile fish and scorpion fish … P1090367

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 I was also very lucky on one dive – not a very good shot, but this is a painted clown frog fish – about the size of a small fingernail.  I have only seen one other during my nine years diving… P1080614 I was also fortunate to see a robust ghost pipe fish.  Ghost pipe fish are masters of disguise and this one was mimicking a rotting palm leaf.  From a slightly different angle, you can clearly see it is from the pipe fish family…

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Ornate ghost pipe fish can also be found at this site P1080500 The other sites at Mabul are more scenic, although offer less diversity than Sea Adventures.  I saw a lovely pygmy sea-horse – again, not such a good picture, but it is the best I have taken of a pygmy sea-horse with a point and shoot! For those unaware, these are about the size of a fingernail tip! P1090399 The only other experience I am reporting, in the interests of public awareness, is myself and my buddy were attacked by a titan trigger fish after unwittingly straying into its nesting cone.

This happened at our safety stop in the shallows.  I was oblivious and looking in a different direction. First it bit my fin, and Lynn heard me yell.  As I was telling her what happened, it bit my right shin, then her fin.  We swan off that reef like a pair of torpedoes!  I was wearing my full length wetsuit, which gave me protection from the bite – a bruise and small graze was all that I sustained thankfully. I got a huge fright though!  I have since learnt that titan trigger fish nest during the full moon period – and I wont forget this now!

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This is a reef a couple of kilometres from Mabul island.  A resort on stilts sits above the reef and a number of dive sites surrounds it, offering shallow and easy diving.  The sites I dived had artificial reefs – and some are rather creative…

P1090283 “Wendy Houses” for fish …

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It was  fun looking around them for the small stuff.  Here’s Lynn coming down “Wendy House Lane”…

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As with all muck diving,  when you have a closer look, you can find marine life treasures, like this flamboyant cuttle fish.

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…and this family of desirable and red line Flabellina nudibranches (ID thanks to my UW Photography friend ScbubaShafer)

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At first glance, this is just a boat load of old bottles…

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… but looking more closely at junk like this, you’ll find life.  This blenny was a real character bobbing  in and out of his home …

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This dive trip will also be remembered for discovering a brand new and very charming species  – the lesser spotted pink or blue Oriental sweet pair.  They are often spotted in Mabul and Sipadan,  due to an easy vacation migration route linking Shanghai to Kota Kinabalu airport…

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Please note the unusual markings that makes identification easy – matching regulator hoses, snorkel, booties, fins, steel prodder….. Underwater, the female species also adorns herself with mouse ears.  Others chose bunny or bug ears.

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Other divers from the region were equally spell-bound by this new species from China.  I do hope they do something about shark finning!

So, a summary of the sites we dived:

Sipadan – 12 dives

  • Barracuda Point (3)
  • Shark, or South Point (3)
  • Drop Off (2)
  • Turtle Cavern (2)
  • Hanging Garden (1)
  • Coral Garden (1)

Mabul – 13 dives

  • Borneo Divers House Reef/Paradise II (4)
  • Sea Adventures (3)
  • Lobster Wall (2)
  • Eel Garden (2)
  • Ray Alley (2)

Kapalai (2)

  • House Reef (1)
  • Mandarin Gardens (1)

Overall

The diving on Sipadan exceeded my expectations – it really is outstanding.   I heard so many mixed reports and was also put off by the uncertainty that comes with a permit system.  Notwithstanding this however, it was worth it.  The diving at Mabul is also good enough and is on the “dive map” as a muck diving destination – check my post here.  More and more resorts are opening on a burgeoning Mabul and they are starting to build stilted resorts on neighbouring reefs, so my advice is to go, but go soon before it gets too crowded.

How to get to Sipadan

By air, road then boat.  The closest airport is Tawau.  Air Aisa and Malaysian Airlines offer flights from both KL and Kota Kinabalu,  which is the main international airport for Borneo.  From Tawau, it is another one hour by road to the jetty at Semporna, and a further hour by fast boat to Mabul.  Borneo Divers offer a free road and boat transfer at set times of the day.  Outside of these times is extra.

How long to go for – the permit system

Although necessary to keep the island and its fragile eco-system pristine,  diving at Sipadan is a bit of a lottery because of a day permit system.  Introduced in 2006, 120 permits are issued each day and there’s a quota system for the 12 dive resorts. Permits are 40 Malaysian Ringgit each (approx £8 or $13) and are applied for in advance, via your resort.  The issuing authority is Sabah Parks, but you wont find any information on their website.  The number of Sipadan dive days offered depends on the length and location of stay.  The most important criteria for choosing the length of stay at Mabul is the resort’s policy  on Sipadan permits.  A three-day stay normally guarantees you a one day permit.  Here is the list of the quota per resort, taken at the permit office on Sipadan late April 2014 – it seems the numbers change daily, but you get a gist of who gets the most permits ….

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Where to stay

There is a growing range of options on Mabul catering from backpackers right up to luxury travellers. We chose Borneo Divers due to its reputation, availability, speed of response from their sales team and cost (mid-priced).   We booked eight nights, seven days diving, as this guaranteed us two days at Sipadan.  We got lucky with three.  Overall we were very happy at Borneo Divers.  It’s and extremely well run in a confident, yet understated manner – things just happened.  The resort was clean and well-kept, food excellent and the dive operations were flawless. The only down side was poor wi-fi – but is that important on a dive holiday? My verdict – the original, and the best operators.

A look round Borneo Divers

Arrival briefing

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The dive deck and store-room

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The dive sites, with dive guide Willy (left) and Amin, the man that keeps everything running safely and smoothly

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The dive staff, including the elusive dive head hauncho LJ ( so if you want extra day of diving at Sipadan, tell him he’s handsome!)

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The daily dive schedule – this is completed every afternoon for the following day, so divers know their boat and dive guide, where it is going and what time to be on the dive deck.  Simple. Effective. Perfect.

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Borneo divers house reef, with Sea Adventures in the distance.  That boat is due to be sunk in June and will be the latest addition to the dive site listing at Mabul.  Borneo Divers offers unlimited diving on the house reef, which is very good!

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Our chalet and the grounds …

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 The reception area and dining room …

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 … and finally a little slice of island life….

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