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Sabah, Borneo - March - April 2010

Published by Mark Gurney (mgobc AT yahoo.com)

Participants: Mark Gurney

I spent 24 days in Sabah in March and April 2010. This was at the end of the normal wet season, but I arrived at the end of one of the longest droughts for years: I had to wait eight days before I saw any rain. Many of the birds were not calling, which made ground-babblers and pittas hard to find, but I still managed to record over 260 species, plus some spectacular mammals and plants. I have a table of which species I saw at which site; I can send this to you if you e-mail me.

The food was good, the accommodation was comfortable, and it was easy to get around and communicate. Sabah was an easy destination for an independent traveller, with a bit of help from the Bradt Travel Guide and some guidance from James Eaton at Birdtour Asia.

Places visited

Megah d'Aru
A comfortable hotel very close to Kota Kinabalu airport. They were very efficient in dealing with e-mail reservations, and they provided free transfers to either terminal. RM 138 a night, including breakfast.

Sepilok Forest Edge Resort
I stayed in the longhouse, where I had a double room for RM 70 a night, breakfast included. Other meals were RM 7 to RM 18, and the food was nice. The water pump was rather noisy, but otherwise the room was quiet and comfortable. The staff were very friendly and helpful, and they arranged cars to take me to and from the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RM 4 each way) at whatever times I asked. Transfer from Sandakan Airport was RM 40. Breakfast was served from 0700 till 1000, so I went out before dawn and came back for my egg, sausage, and toast at 0930. Internet (RM 5 for half an hour) and laundry were available. There was a short trail through some forest at the back of the cabins. The Rainforest Discovery Centre was a 25 minute walk, but I often got a car because it was not pleasant walking back in the heat. The Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre was a 10 minute walk. I reserved rooms by e-mail several weeks in advance.

Rainforest Discovery Centre
The park was officially open from 0800 to 2200, but if you bought your ticket the day before you could enter as early as you like. Entrance was RM 10. An extension to the walkway was being built, so there was construction noise from 0730 each morning. Because of this, I usually stayed around the Bristlehead Tower till the work began, then I headed off away from the building site. Many of the paths were gravel, and the trails were very easy to walk. Because I arrived at the end of one of the drought, it was very hot and dry. The birds were consequently hard to find, and some of the trails seemed lifeless, but there was usually something to see. The canopy walkway was sturdy, but there was some shake if there were lots of people on it. The centre has a website, so you could e-mail to ask for the latest information about opening times and visiting.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
I took the shuttle bus from the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre at 1030. This cost RM 15 each way and it took half an hour. The return left Labuk Bay at 1700, but we came back just after 1400 because the couple who were sharing the shuttle with me wanted to see the Orang-utan feeding at 1500 back at Sepilok, and I agreed that we could leave early. Entry to the sanctuary was RM 60, and there was a RM 10 camera fee. Lunch at the sanctuary restaurant was RM 6–10. There were two stations where the monkeys were fed a couple of times each day. Apart from this there was a short trail into the nipah palm and mangrove swamp behind the restaurant.

Kinabatangan Jungle Camp
Robert Chong is a great character, and my visit to his Jungle Camp was enjoyable. I was going to go with another birder I had met at Sepilok, but he pulled out. Robert does not usually take one client, but he agreed to take me for a re-negotiated price. The rooms were very pleasant, and the food was plentiful and delicious. It took about two hours to be driven from Sepilok, the last 15 minutes being along a dirt track to the jetty from where it was another 15 minutes by boat to the camp. The camp did not have the capacity for many guests, which means that if you stayed there you were not part of a flotilla of noisy boats crammed full of people when you went out on the river. Robert's concise history of the Kinabatangan River, told after lunch on the first day, was very entertaining.

Danum Valley Field Centre
I stayed seven nights in a large double room in Rest House II near the dining room. It was clean and quiet, with an ineffective ceiling fan, and a handy rack for drying clothes. Rest House II was concrete, and tended to hold the heat. The older Rest House I was wooden and adjacent to the dining room. I expect it would be slightly cooler, but it sounded as though it would have been rather noisy when groups were staying. The hostel was about a ten minute walk from the dining room. Electricity was available from 0700–0000. Free filtered water, tea, coffee, and biscuits were provided for full-board guests. Meals were served buffet style in the dining room from 0700–0800, 1200–1300, and 1915–2000, so you could help yourself to as much of the delicious food as you liked. If you wanted a packed lunch you could order one the day before. I usually went out early and came back for a late breakfast. By mid morning the cicadas were getting very noisy and birds were becoming harder to see, so this worked well. There was a minibus from Lahad Datu on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, which cost RM 65 each way. The journey took about 2½ hours, of which only the first forty minutes were on paved roads, the rest was along a very bumpy logging track. The total cost for my stay, including transport, permits, food, guide, and one night drive, was RM 1821, which had to be paid in cash at the field centre; make sure you take enough with you. I booked my visit by e-mail. Sometimes it took a week to get a response, but it worked out in the end.

The field centre attitude was rather strange: keen on eco-tourism and education, but very reluctant to allow anyone in the forest where they might see some wildlife. The primary forest across the bridge was apparently out of bounds, but some of the guests had obtained permission to go there; it seemed to depend on who was on duty when you asked. I walked a short way along the trail by the river there. You were supposed to have a guide at least the first time you used any of the longer trails in the secondary forest. They were not well signed, so this was probably a sensible precaution. On my first day, I went on a guided walk along the first part of the Tembaling Waterfall Trail with a group of other guests after breakfast. From then on I felt confident and justified walking the trails in that part of the forest by myself. These trails were good, and so was a fruiting tree by the reception building, so I spent little time exploring other parts. I walked along the access road a couple of times, and around the short trails near the buildings. I managed to see most of the things I wanted by doing this, but the wren-babblers and Giant Pitta were not calling and they eluded me.

I could easily have stayed longer here. Every day I saw at least one thing that on its own would have made the whole week worthwhile for me, like a pitta, a pheasant, or a primate. Watching birds coming and going at the fruiting tree by the reception building was enough to keep me occupied for two afternoons. There were times when I did not see much, but the trails never seemed as lifeless as they did at Sepilok (the return of rain, which started on my arrival, may have helped).

Borneo Backpackers
A nice hostel in the centre of Kota Kinabalu. It had free internet, clean rooms, a good library of guide books, and a friendly atmosphere. I stayed here for one night in a private room with a fan for RM 40. As my flight left at midnight on my last day, I checked in to a dormitory for the afternoon for RM 10 so I had somewhere to shower and pack up and a place to leave my things while I explored the town. The helpful staff arranged the taxi to the airport. The hostel was close to plenty of restaurants and shops.

Kinabalu Park
There was a RM 15 entrance charge for the National Park, which was valid for three days, but on my first visits I entered at 0545 and there was nobody on the entrance gate to take the fee. Trail maps were available for free at the information centre. I stayed below the Timpohon Gate, so there were no other charges or formalities and I was free to walk the trails, where I rarely encountered anyone else. All the trails were worth exploring, and many of the specialties were common and easy to see every day. Towards the end of my stay I met some researchers who were collecting data on nesting birds; they kindly told me the best areas to look for the species I still had not found. On the first day I drove to the Timpohon Gate for dawn and walked down the Liwagu Trail. The taxi back up to get the car cost RM 16.50. Previously, people have watched birds feeding on insects drawn to the lights around the buildings around the park headquarters, but the lights were turned off during the night, so perhaps the authorities have become conscious of not wasting energy. The lights at the power station were still on, and birds came in there.

To get to the higher areas I went to the Mesilau Gate. This avoided having to hire a guide and struggle up the crowded summit trail above Timpohon. From Mesilau I could get a RM 10 permit at 0700 to walk as far as the Layang-layang Station. I was the only person on the trail until about 0900, when the first climbers came past. About half a dozen groups came past me, but after 1100 I saw nobody else until I was back at the gate at 1700. After the first half hour, the sun came out and it was almost birdless till I reached higher forest and cloud came in at about 0830. The Layang-layang Station is 5.5 km from the start of the trail, but there was plenty to stop and look at so I only made it to about 3 km, which was just past the Nepenthes shelter. I then turned round and walked slowly back.

I ate at the restaurant opposite the park gates, where a main course was RM 5–6, and in the evenings I often went to the D'Villa where a dinner was RM 6–10. The accommodation and food inside the park was extortionately expensive (RM 60 for a standard lunch), so many people slept and ate in places outside the gates. There were a number of lodges that assert to be just by the entrance gates. J-residence was the closest, 300 m along the road towards Kota Kinabalu. Bayu Homestay was 400 m; the entrance to the rather ramshackle Haleluyah Retreat was 1000 m. The distances the other way, towards Ranau, were: Mountain Resthouse 400 m; D'Villa 800 m; Sunny's Villa 1300 m; Fairy Garden 1600 m; Rose Cabin 2000 m; Merlin 2000 m; Strawberry Garden 3800 m.

Fairy Garden
This was a very comfortable place, 1.6 km from the entrance to Kinabalu Park. The midweek price of RM 74 for a large, comfortable room with a hot shower (the only place I needed one) was good value. At weekends this was raised to RM 105. Breakfast was not included, which suited me because I wanted to be out before dawn, so I took some buns and fruit with me (bought in Ranau whilst I was passing through) each morning. My room faced the back; I am not sure how noisy the rooms that faced the road would have been. Glossy Swiftlets nested in the stairwells.

Poring Hot Springs
This was signed all the way from Ranau, and the drive from Fairy Garden took about one hour. Entrance was RM 15. The trail to the waterfall was a relentless uphill climb through heat and humidity until the last 500 m, when there was a bit of down to contrast with the 4 km of up. There was a small cave along the way, where you could see roosting bats. The 120 m waterfall was impressive, and the walk back was easier. At the end you got to feel very odd by walking with optical equipment past the pools full of bathers who have arrived while you have been trekking in the forest. The canopy walkway (RM 5 + RM 5 camera fee) was short and not good for birding because the rope walkways were swinging and there were people wanting to come by. Good lunch at the Round Inn was RM 16.

A few kilometres before the Hot Springs, there was a sign advertising a blooming rafflesia. This was in the forest behind a farm house, where an entrance fee of RM 30 was payable. The visitors book showed that the flowers had been in bloom in March, February, and the previous October. The species here was Rafflesia keithii, endemic to Borneo, and almost as large as Rafflesia arnoldi, which holds the record for the largest flower.

Gunung Alab
The room was damp, the bed was hard, the water was cold and only available intermittently. But I only stayed one night, and it was the closest accommodation to the forest and the Rafflesia Information Centre. A generator provided electricity until midnight. The room cost RM 50 a night. The drive from Fairy Garden was 90 km, 10 km of which was unpaved and quite rough, and it took a couple of hours.

Rafflesia Information Centre
This was on the road between Tambunan and Kota Kinabalu. I spent most of the time on the road, walking along from lay-bys a few kilometres either side of the Centre. The trails at the Centre were behind a locked gate and they could only be visited with a guide. I did hire a guide (RM 100) to take me to see a Rafflesia pricei, which the noticeboard had informed me was blooming today. This was a smaller but more strikingly patterned rafflesia than Rafflesia keithii.

Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre
I had a short visit here on my last morning as I was driving back into Kota Kinabalu. It was hot and not very active by the time I arrived, but the mangrove boardwalk was interesting. Entry RM 10.


Costs and getting around

The total cost of the trip was about £1400 in Borneo, plus international airfare of £540. I flew from London via Seoul with Asiana, which was a pleasant and trouble-free experience.

At Sepilok, the staff at the Resort arranged cars to take me back and forth to the Rainforest Discovery Centre, or I walked. Labuk Bay has its own shuttle bus from Speilok. Transfer between Sepilok and Kinabatangan Jungle Camp was included in the stay, but I got them to drop me at the junction with the road to Lahad Datu, where a taxi cost RM 60 to the Danum Valley Field Centre office. I took the minibus transfer from the office to the field centre (this goes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). I did not need any transport while I was at Danum Valley. Back in Lahad Datu it was a short walk from the office to the airport.

Taxi from the airport to Kota Kinabalu was RM 30. Buses leave Kota Kinabalu for Kinabalu Park, but I had no accommodation booked and I was not sure how close to the Park I would be able to stay. I also wanted to visit other places while I was there, so I decided to hire a car. I rented a Viva from KK Leisure for RM 128 a day, including insurance and damage waiver, and spent about RM 110 on petrol.