Bilit – Day 2

A beautiful dawn sky greeted  us as our boat moved slowly out into the river sliding through misty early morning.

Swallows feeding on a morning insect hatch escorted us as we embarked on our first wildlife cruise of the day. Hornbills and kingfisher went about their business along the river, as did some troops of monkeys out and about early. I will let the photos tell the story.

Our second cruise of the day took us up river in search for the elusive Borneo elephant – approximately 100 live in this area. Although we spotted tracks and fresh elephant paths down to the river, the elephants didn’t appear today. We move to Tabin Reserve and Jungle Lodge tomorrow which has another elephant population which hopefully will cross our path. 

Proboscis monkeys provided the in cruise entertainment as they engaged in incredible acrobatic displays in the canopy along the rivers edge. How they don’t break their necks is anyone’s guess.

A glorious sunset guided us back to the lodge and an excellent dinner. We head to Tabin Nature Reserve and Jungle lodge tomorrow morning. Stay tuned!

Sepilok and Sandakan

Due to flight schedules it took us two flights and an overnight stay in Kota Kintabula to travel from Sarawak to Sabah and reach Sandakan our final destination. Our 0 dark thirty wake up call got us to our flight at 7 am and a short 30 minute flight deposited us in Sandakan near  Sepilok – home of the Sepilok Orang Utahn Rehabilitation centre and the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation centre.  Both were amazing centres devoted to the rehabilitation and preservation of two incredible mammals. Our first stop was the orangutan nursery for orphaned babies, then open to the feeding platforms in the jungle areas and then over to the Borneo Sun Bear property run by an amazing man who has devoted his life to the preservation of these lovely little Asian bears.

A 2 hour drive through uninterrupted miles of oil palm plantations gave way suddenly to Rain Forest conservation habitat as we entered the area around our next lodgings – the Borneo Sukau Bilit Resort on the Kinabatangan River. The lodge is extraordinary with all rooms being individual cabins. My handcrafted abode sits perched above a small natural pond adjacent to the river and is charming. One unusual feature is the floor in the shower. Rather than a solid floor the boards are spaced apart so water just flows through onto the ground – interesting design 🙂 No internet or cell service for the next two days 😀

Our late afternoon was completed with a cruise along the Kinabatangan River – and what a cruise it became! Here at last is a balanced jungle – insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians and large mammals. Family groups of monkeys dotted the shoreline, squabbling, engaging in a acrobatic play, feeding and just hanging around being monkeys getting ready for the night. 

 I knew I would see Orangutans in the Rehabiliation centre this trip but never dreamed I would see one in the wild – and there he was right along the river, a wise old male gorging on ripening figs. One of 825 Orangutans  in this forest – what a privilege!  Macaque and probocsis monkey sightings completed a wonderful, wonderful day!  Tomorrow our day starts with a dawn boat ride along the river in search of birds and more monkeys. Stay tuned! 

Mulu NP – Day 2

Traditional Borneo dugouts took us swiftly down river from the lodge this morning towards another major set of caves – the Cave of the Wind and the Clearwater cave. The breeze on the river as we travelled was exhilarating and cloud cover added to the relative coolness of the day.

 

A Penan village was our first stop before reaching the cave sites. The Penan are one of the last remaining indigenous tribes in Sarawak that practise a hunting and gathering lifestyle. Approximately 16,000 remain.

Trying to be helpful the Govt built them longhouses of concrete which the tribe quickly used for storage – they live elsewhere 🙂 The women create beautiful plant fibre weavings using traditional methods and dyes. Following a brief tour of the village we visited a small handicraft market in the village where some baskets spoke to me and joined my camera in the dry sac. Hopefully they won’t set off alarms going through Canadian customs…..

An elderly gentleman dressed in traditional Penan clothing joined us outside the market – according to village lore he is in his late 90’s and doing amazingly well.

The Penan are blow dart hunters and demonstrated the skill for us, after which some members of the group tried their hand at this ancient form of hunting. Darts went everywhere in the beginning- but some folks got the hang of it pretty quickly.

The caves were amazing. I hope the photo gives some idea of their grandeur.

The Cave of the Winds was used for a dwelling by ancient peoples of Borneo, artifacts and bones have been found at the site. We saw no mammals but some impressive insects and beetles. One caterpillar fell on the exposed arm of a group member and delivered a toxic jolt (always wear long sleeves if you journey into the jungle here), another group were in a feeding mass on a nearby tree and an extremely impressive horned beetle made an appearance later in the day.

A traditional Sarawak lunch of coconut curried chicken, vegetables and rice served on a tin roofed platform looking out over the river rounded out the morning. The lovely food, washed down with hot tea to the accompaniment of the rain on the roof was magic. The dugouts then took us back up stream to the lodge, dodging raindrops.

Tonight we go for a jungle walk. There are bioluminescent fungi here, as well as a million frogs (based on the noise last night) and hopefully some nocturnal mammals. In the meantime some of us had a dip in the pool and watched the rain come down accompanied by growling thunder in the distance.

One thing became apparent today and tonight – it rains in the rain forest 🙂. Our ramble along the jungle paths after dark turned up bats, geckos, huntsmen spiders the size of salad plates, crickets, stick insects, some bizarre worms and the ever present caterpillars. What is conspicuously missing and has been missing so far in this trip are any mammals or birds. The combination of heavy logging for slash and burn agriculture, plus palm oil plantation clearing together with hunting pressure has driven most mammals and bird species deep into remaining forests or eradicated them all together. The result is one of the oddest jungles I have ever been in. Full of insects and their predators – bats, frogs, toads and snakes – and little else. One aha moment tonight was the spotting and recording of the Appy Dwarf Toad – a species endemic to Borneo and not often seen. It was also stick insect central tonight with sightings of very young ones to gravid adult females resembling something out of the Aliens film franchise.

 

This is our last night here. We fly to Kota Kinabalu tomorrow for a night before heading out to the wildlife rehabilitation centres and the national parks in the northern part of the island. As some of our clothes are walking around on their own at this point we hope to find a laundry at our next stop 🙂  Until then memburu yang baik! 

Mulu National Park

We said farewell to Kuching this morning and boarded our flight to the UNESCO Heritage site –  Mulu National park deep in  the Sarawak rain forest. The approach to the airport was stunning as our pilot threaded the needle through high limestone peaks and jungle to land in the isolated strip. 

The Mulu caves of bat fame are located here an easy walk from our jungle lodge located within the park. The largest of these caves called Deer cave is estimated to house upwards of 3 million bats – many of whom we hoped to see this evening as they exit the cave on their nightly foraging expeditions. 

It was Centipede and caterpillar day in the jungle, with many crossing our paths on their multitude of legs as we slowly made our way up through the jungle to the cave system. Limestone formations surrounded us in the forest as we followed the trail alongside the stream bed in the jungle. 

 

The first cave we visited was absolutely stunning. Lang cave is a limestone gem without bats – so no guano piles to avoid 🙂 Stalactites and stalagmites are still actively being formed into some bizarre shapes, creating a moonscape of sorts.

 

A short walk away is Deer cave home to the bats. The name comes from the deer that enter the cave to lick the salt in the guano that the bats deposit daily. Hunters would hide in wait for the deer who came to access the salt and dinner was secured.  We were greeted at the entrance to the cave by the first ever mail drop located at a UNESCO Heritage cave – made for a nice touch 😀

Following the sortie into Deer Cave our group walked down hill to the Bat viewing area to watch the bats exit the caves. After a wait of about an hour, occupied with fending off an attack by the biggest earwig I have ever seen we had just about given up and then out they came. 100,000’s of them in an undulating, perfectly synchronized stream their wings making a whooshing sound as they flew overhead through  the evening sky. An amazing experience.

We headed home through a rapidly darkening jungle in full night song – frogs, cicadas, birds and something that (based on the noise it was making)  I had no desire to get anywhere near.  All singing, crowing, chattering at once. A cacophony of sound against the growling of thunder and periodic forked lightning to our east. My favorite was a frog who sounds like a car horn – interestingly enough it is called the horn frog 🙂

Our lodge is lovely – surrounded by thick jungle and it music. A new frog made its presence known last night outside my door – its call sounding like a coughing dog. It is now officially called the KC frog…. Tomorrow we will enjoy a river cruise, visit two more caves – Clearwater and Wind Cave (pretty obvious how they got their names 😀) and visit a Penang village. Stay tuned……

Kuching -Day 3

A glorious Borneo sunrise greeted me this morning, as the Muezzin call drifted out over the city of Kuching and its inhabitants began to stir.

An interesting day which became a cultural immersion rather than wildlife viewing. The Irrawaddy dolphins and native crocodiles were not being cooperative this morning – so we cruised slowly along the mangrove choked shorelines, a breeze off the ocean and a shade canopy keeping the heat at bay as the Borneo coastline drifted by.

Following the shoreline our boat eventually landed at a small native village along the Santubong Delta accessible only by water. This turned out to be a wonderful turn of events as we walked around the village built on stilts over the river exploring boardwalks, coming upon bee hives, small raised gardens, cats, colour and smiles everywhere we looked – I will let the photos tell the story. Also if anyone is interested in what an Irrawaddy dolphin and the local crocodiles look like I have included a photo of each.

 

 

 

 

The heat of the afternoon was wiled away back at the hotels lovely infinity pool with an incredible view over the city towards Kubah National park our destination for the evening.

Kubah National parks claim to fame is the recent discovery of a new frog species (the Kubah Narrow Mouthed frog) , adults of which are the size of a pencil lead tip. They live their entire lives inside insect eating pitcher plants – smart amphibians to set up house with a built in protection system and buffet. Our guides were Solomon and Abraham – two very knowledgeable young men of Asian ethnicity with North American accents. I would have loved to find out their story but there wasn’t the time. We did find the pitcher plants but no frogs – the pitcher plants themselves were amazing, growing in colonies all over a hillside.

A steep scramble up into the forest brought us to what is known as the frog pond. Cicadas provided the musical accompaniment to our climb as fire flies and our head lamps lit the way. We were blessed with a myriad of frog sightings, plus some spiders and cicadas the size of sanitation trucks……. I will leave you with a brief photo gallery of what we saw. A wonderful end to the day.

 

Tomorrow we fly to Mulu to visit the famous bat caves of Borneo. Until then selamat Malam!

Kuching Day 2 – Mongkos Bidayuh Longhouse and Serian Market

An early morning start took us quickly out of Kuching to our first stop,  the Serian market. Although smaller than some of its counterparts around the world, the rich fabric of colours and scents coupled with the obvious love of food in Sarawak made me wish for a shopping bag and an available kitchen.  Photos will have to do 🙂

Eggs Sarawak Style

 

 

Following a sampling of Sarawak sweet pancakes at the market, our journey continued to the Mongkos Bidayuh Longhouse and Village. Excellent coffee and tapioca wrapped in banana leaves, alongside Sarawak three layer cake greeted us before our exploration of the village began. The long house is essentially an apartment complex inhabited by a number of families with a common covered porch area running the length of the structure. Chores are ongoing in the shade and breezes on the porch as well as resting, dancing and sleeping.  Floors are bamboo.

The original roof was shot up by the Japanese in WW II and replaced by tin. Bullet holes remain in the upper walls – families survived by hiding under the longhouse. Following a Longhouse tour and narrative by our excellent local guide, our group was privileged to watch a native dance with some of us getting up and trying out a few steps. Music was provided by several large blue drum like instruments that had us all toe tapping along 🙂

The Sarawak government is very far sighted in that it offers school aged children in these rural communities free tuition and board at public schools in the state. The children stay at school during the week and go home on weekends – one result being that only the very young were present during our visit today.

          

School is mandatory in the state, and members of the Bidayuh community have become Doctors, Lawyers and members of government.

The jungle gardens around the village are planted with rubber trees, pepper bushes, bananas, beans, rice  paddies and just about every type of vegetable you can imagine. The near equatorial location plus abundant rainfall ensures year round harvests. One ominous development over the past few years has been the required implementation of  irrigation systems for the pepper plantings- due to the steady increase in mean temperatures. Pepper is a main cash crop for the tribe. The large healthy plants produce black pepper and the more costly white pepper – depending on when it is picked and the curing methods – who knew?????

A planned 45 minute walk turned into double that when our group arrived at the river and found that the bridge had been washed out in an earlier heavy rain. Following game trails, negotiating some interesting bridges

and hacking some trails out of the undergrowth took us deep into the jungle and face to face with some interesting plants and fungi. Fungi are prevalent here particularly on trees and plants which have been grown on depleted ground several years after it is initially cleared in slash and burn techniques.

Our guide was a goldmine of information about the plants around us. One fern was part of my dinner tonight cooked in garlic and oyster mushroom sauce. In its raw state is it crushed and used on boils to draw out infection and speed healing. Another plant factoid was the use of very young green banana leaves as cooking vessels. Apparently if you put a leaf like this over a fire, liquid will ooze out of it and you can cook eggs in the liquid. No need for cooking pots in the jungle 👍🏻😀  The various plants made for some interesting photo ops.

 

 

The Top Spot food court was our destination for dinner. The phrase food court brings to mind small crowded spaces ringed with artery cloggers such as MacDonalds, Wendy’s, subway etc. – all producing items that bear no real relationship to food.  I approached dinner with some trepidation. What a pleasant surprise! The “Food Court” in Kuching is the size of a foot ball field with outdoor and indoor eating areas.

Rather than being surrounded by trans fat central, stalls with REAL food surrounded us. The way it works is that you choose a stall, pick your seafood and vegetable, then choose the cooking style. The results were stunning both visually and to the palate.

 

 

 

Tomorrow is our final day in this area. We venture out on the river in the early morning, in search of the rare Irrawaddy dolphins, as well as the local crocodiles which reach 18 feet in length. I hope to spend the afternoon exploring more of the town and then a night walk is scheduled in the jungle. Stay tuned!

Kuching – Day 1

Kuching caught me by surprise. A place that wasn’t even on my radar other than as a jumping off spot for nearby national parks and jungle excursions has got my attention. About 400,000 people of many different ethnicities (Chinese, Filipino, Malay, Dayak etc)  live peacefully in the city located along the Sarawak River. Begun in the 19th C, the core is a jumble of old buildings – many with heritage designations, myriad alleys, signs in different languages and did I mention the food :-).  Laksa is an incredible soup found in many forms here. The word originates from an Indian word meaning a million – probably used to describe the many ingredients. My Laksa this evening was rice noodles in  a rich cilantro gravy, the bowl filled with green onions, bean sprouts, prawns, chickens and egg.

The BEST lime juice I have ever had accompanied a memorable meal in an open air restaurant with fans pushing a welcome breeze over our table, 28 degree temperatures, air like warm silk and the river lights shining 50 feet from us 🙂 A wide promenade snaking along the river, populated by buskers, food stalls, music and light shows – added to an enjoyable walk home after dinner. 

 

The hotel is lovely – right in the middle of the old quarter, facing the river overlooking the Houses of Parliament. While I unpacked the sun glinted off the river and parts of the old town as a muezzin called the faithful to prayer.

 

The tour group is diverse and well travelled – a mixture of couples and solo women. Our CEO is an accomplished birder and is passionate about wildlife. The trip is looking like it will be a good one. Tomorrow we head out to Mongkos Bidayuh Longhouse, visit the village and surrounding farmland before enjoying a traditional Dayak lunch. Stay tuned!