River deep. Mountain high. (Guest blog by Franz Kuehmayer)

 I am happy to post this wonderful blog about Borneo which was this time written by Franz (thanks a lot – I should hire you as my ghost writer!!:)

Borneo, they say, is so rich in adventures and treasures that it is hard to figure out where to start. And it is not just the richness of nature that fascinated us from the beginnng, but also its vast variety. We were about to spend just two weeks here and would barely cover the northern part of Borneo (Sabah, to be precise), but we knew we’d come across deep rainforests, some of the best diving sites in the world, a magic mountain and lots of wildlife in between.

We had been warned that accessing some of the sights we wanted to visit would require advance planning and reservation, but little did we anticipate how complicated it can be to just book a mountain hut for a specific date. The mail traffic we had with the hut operator lasted for 2 weeks and during this time included a daily mystery whether they had understood our last mail correctly or again not quite. We went so far as to cross-read our mails before sending them off (for a question as simple as: Do you have availability on the xth in location A, and if not, at any other date or location?), but were still puzzled about how difficult simple things can be made. In the end, however, we finally made it…

First on out list was Sepilok, the center point to see semi-wild Orang Utans. Borneos djungle shrinks on a daily basis due to immense palm oil plantations (which look green and nice at first sight, but from a biodiversity standpoint are more or less dead wood), and the endemic wildlife suffers quite dramatically from this reduction of habitat. But here in Sepilok they have preserved a significant area of rainforest and they use it to renaturalize Oran-Utans. Which means they grow up under close support and even learn from humans how to survive in nature and over time the support they receive is reduced piece by piece until they finally live in nature again, all by themselves. For visitors such as us this represents a unique chance to see them in their natural environment, and we made good use of our time there. While most of the other tourists would rather think of these beautiful creatures as pets and would crowd around the feeding platforms, we spotted a single monkey peacefully having lunch in a tree, and decided to skip the official sightseeing and rather watch this orange-brown guy for the next hour and a half. You can’t deny they are humanlike and it is a true gift to be able to just sit there in silence and watch this wild beautiful animal going about his way.

Our next day, still in Sepilok, continued with monkeys, Proboscis to be exact. It would be quite a stretch to call them beautiful, given their very distinct nose. But then you stand there and your mind goes through your list of relatives and collegues and sure as death and taxes you’ll find someone looking strangely familiar to these monkeys. We spent all morning at two feeding sites and watched hordes of monkeys come to pick up their first and second breakfast and to socialize in between. They are quick runners and even quicker climbers, and we did not grow tired of watching them. And that’s not just because some of them have a nose big enough they cannot drink without using their hands, which makes for a funny view.

Having seen enough of monkeys (so we thought), we headed deeper into the rainforest, up Kinabatangan river, where we spent some time in a simple but nice lodge right in the middle of the forest and on the shore of this wide and deep river that cuts through jungle like a brown belt. Our daily trips with small boats on the river would lead us to see amazing wildlife: Playful monkeys again (and not just a few…), huge monitors like a memory from a distant past, majestic eagles and beautifully colored hornbills flying above us, crocodiles patiently waiting to make their move. But we wanted more, and we knew exactly what we wanted to see: Pygmy elefants. We had some discussions about how tall a Pygmy elefant would be and how they’d look like (like Disney’s Dumbo? Like an Indian elefant that got laundered a bit too hot? Like a baby elefant?), but we seemed to be unable to get the answer to our question. While some of the other guests reported having seen them, we we were not so lucky on our djungle boat cruises. Now, if I say djungle boat, don’t think about a patrol boat as in Apocalypse Now – rather think of a small wooden boat, a boatsman, a guide and the two uf us slowly cruising up the deep river and looking our eyes out for animals. We had almost given up hope, when on our last ride we came across other boats who franticlly signalled us they had seen elephants. We followed their lead, and indeed just 2 meters away from us directly on the shore beneath high grass we finally saw two of them. They would not really take notice of us, despite the boats being quite intrusive in coming close to get a god sight and picture, but either they know about their superiority or they are just bored by humans coming across their way every other day (probably both). The answer to the quiz, finally, is that they are not as small as we had thought, but rather of significant size. So while they may be pygmy compared to their larger relatives in India or Africa, they are quite impressive animals.

Still not having seen enough of the djungle, we headed to Danum Valley, a research camp about two hours (by car) offroad, quite in the middle of Borneo. Being one of th finest intact rainforests, the camp usually does not cater for tourists but rather attracts biologists and zoologists from across the world. On our way to the camp we met a young PhD student who researches about beetles, and in the camp we met friendly nice researchers young and old. On the first evening they gave us a spontanous short nightwalk and we learned about the amazing size of centipedes to be found here and heard stories of one researcher having been chased through the camp by an Orang Utan etc. Quite a place. We used sunrise for a nice view over the early mist rising from the forest, we did a night drive with a 4WD and we also exhausted ourselves by hiking to a nice waterfall. While only a 3 hours walk, the heat and humity of the forest were immense and wore us out – luckily we were able to jump into the little natural pools the waterfall had formed and took a paradisic shower in the heart of the jungle.

After all that heat and green, we were bound for some more water, and so we headed to Mabul, a small island off the westcoast of Borneo, and our base camp for some serious diving. And when we says serious, we mean serious: one of the diving spots there, Sipadan, is regarded as one of the absolute top spots in the world. It is a tiny island directly in the deep sea, the reef there drops vertically more than 500meters into the deep blue. It is the place to see sharks (small, but many), to call a giant sea turtle your dive buddy for some time, to gaze at barracudas, to get immersed into a huge swarm of fish, to stop counting lionfish ’cause there are so many, to stay in front of a coral and watch heroic little clownfish defend their territory even more energetic than Nemo did, and to just dive in awe about the richness, diversity and color of the micro world underwater. While the dive camp itself, hm, how shall we put that politely, has some potential to improve in organizational skills, nature fully makes up for it.

All the dive camps are actually stilt houses built into the shallow sea, directly behind them and connected through wooden pathways, is the little village. Life there is a huge contrast, the huts are poor, many of them lack electricity, and you can see the inhabitants dont have much to live. But it is not a depressing sight, not by any means – on the contrary, the streets are full of playing kids and similing adults, and after a while you recognize the whole village is proof to the point that money is not everything in life. While this may sound a bit romantic – and faced with the dire reality of everyday life it surely is – the many friendly people we met there truely enjoy life. Kids are excited about playing with an empty shampoo bottle pulled behind them across town as a little boat, almost everybody smiles and hardly anbody begs. I guess when we look at the long list of items we purchase to make us happy, it would be a good reminder sometimes to think about a more basic lifestyle that focusses on the really important things in life: Friendship, love and enjoying life…

The last day at Mabul then brought some scary adventure to all of us: We woke up in the middle of the night by screams “Fire, fire, get out” and a quick check was enough to realize this was not a drill. Not at all. The row of stilt houses just next to ours was burning in a huge blaze. Wind made the whole situation even more dangerous, and so we all quickly collected the bare ncessities and tried to flee. The land-way to the village was already impossible to pass, so we headed out to the other side where in a rescue operation characterized by panic we were lifted away from the base with the dive boats. We found a place to rest in another resort and while deep smoke clouded the village and made breathing difficult, we all accounted for the things we had left behind. Some of the tourists left everything in their rooms and were there just in their undies and tshirt, others like us were a bit more prepared for emergency. We calculated the chances our site would survive the blaze to be 20-30%. Finally strong rain set in and once the sun rose the fire was extinct. Luckily, our divebase survived without any damage, but where there were houses and a shop just 10 meters next to us, now there was literally nothing. We figured that not the rain had stopped the fire but the simple fact there was nothing left to burn. Later we saw adults and kids skiming through the debris in the water in search of anything valuable. It was a heartbreakin sight, as we said before these people have not a lot and now even the few possesions they call their own were gone.

Our trip then lead us back to the main island, we headed east and after spending time below earth’s surface for the last couple of days, we would now do just the opposite: Before us lay Mount Kinabalu, with 4.095 meters the highest mountain in south east asia. After all the mail traffic we had manage to get ourselves organized for the gruelling hike, which would take 2 days. Day one is a climb from the base to the mountain hut in 3.000m, and it is a trail that basically runs completly vertical. We counted three or four very short sections that are not as steep, but for 99% of the way it means going directly uphill. There are natural steps and artifical steps, which is to say, there are steps after steps after steps. Due to the climate, the vegetation still gorws densly even in these heights, and due to this and also some rain and fog, we did not see a lot of panorama on the first day – which, on a positive note, helped us to concentrate on the task ahead, which was: Climb. We reached the hut in the afternoon and were quite impressed by its size. Luckily we had organized sleeping bags, because up here it does get a bit chilly at night.

But then we did not have a lot of time to freeze in our sleep anyway, the alarm went off at 2 am. Getting up so early is the way to do it, when you want to see the sunrise from the top of the mountain. So day 2 meant climbing again, only a little bit steeper, with some alpinistic sections in between, and in complete darkness. The only thing that cuts through the night are the headlamps of the people ascending and the deep breaths they are taking. The physical challenge and the height take their toll. While from a skills level it may be a relatively easy mountain, it still is a major challenge and we were very proud to reach the summit – and rightfully so. The weather had not played nicely again, so instead of seeing the sunrise, we just saw mist getting brighter.

As exhausted as we were from going up, we knew we still had to go down all the way. We reached the base mid afternoon, and on our way down we did count again all those damned steps we had climbed up just before. And we knew, our legs would be sour for the next couple of days. It was one of those times when your physical energy level is close to zero, but your emotional energy level is up there where it belongs after such a great achievement.

We were smart enough to spend the final days in Kota Kinabalu, a mid sized harbour town on the east coast. Pedicures, feet flex massages, leg massages and massages in general improved our stamina just as fast as the nice cocktails and the day at the white sandy beach, and despite the fact restaurants close at 9pm (way too early, we had to rush to finish our yummy seafood and wine), it was a good finale here in Borneo.

One response »

  1. Maija Graser says:

    Liebe Brita und Franz !
    Eure Reisebericht war sehr aufregend, und interessant.Wunderschöne Bilder .Viel Spass auf der Weiterreise und gesund bleiben. Gute Arbeit lieber Franz.
    Wünscht Mutti

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