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Part three: snorkeling in Sipadan

Snorkeling playground in paradise

After our sweaty jungle adventures we needed to find somewhere cooler. Defying Foreign Office advice we decided to risk pirate kidnappings and head to the Semporna archipelago, a set of small reef islands off the north-east side of Borneo. We organised our trip with Uncle Changs, a friendly dive operator with accommodation on Mabul island. As luck would have it we were able to get a day trip going that the next day to the northern islands of Sibuan and Mantabuan, and there was a cancellation meaning that two permits were available for Sipadan island a few days later. Sipadan is rated as one of the best dive sites in the world and although a lot more expensive than the other islands we decided it was too good an opportunity to miss.

Give us a kiss

The minute we jumped into the water we were blown away, it was difficult to know where to look. There were so many different fish to watch and the sea bed was covered with all different shapes and colours of coral.  It was easily the best snorkeling we’ve ever done. Sibuan and Mantabuan are perfect paradise islands fringed with white sands and shaded by palm trees. After lunch on Sibuan we saw our first turtles, they were huge green turtles  about a metre in length slowly swimming by underneath us. We dived to get a closer look at their beautiful shells before they swam away.

Life on Mabul at Uncle Changs was great and over the next two days we just relaxed, partly due to Lou suffering from a bit of sunburn and the wind picked up so the waves were too strong for safe snorkeling. There was a big party while we were there to celebrate Malaysia’s independence day and the end of Ramadan. The house band played a lot of cheesy classics and we especially enjoyed renditions of Lady Gaga, Bon Jovi and The Proclaimers. We had a great time and even joined in with the conga at one point in the evening.

On the fourth day we were back to full strength and had two dives in Mabul and one off the nearby island of Kapalai. We saw more turtles, angel and butterfly fish, a huge flat bat fish who freaked Lou out a bit by following us, a box-shaped fish we think might have been a puffer fish and something we thought was a lobster but turned out to be a peacock mantis shrimp. There were lots of other fish but too many for us to identify.

Look no hands!

The highlight of our trip was Sipadan. We were unsure whether it was going to be worth the extra money but on jumping in the very first thing we saw was a white-tipped reef shark. On our second and third sessions we also saw a giant clam, over a metre across, big shoals of swirling jack fish, barracudas, the very cool napoleon fish, unicorn fish and oodles of turtles. Unfortunately we didn’t have an underwater camera to capture it so you’ll have make do with this shot of us being silly on the beach!



Part two: jungle living

Showering jungle-style

From Mount Kinabalu, we and our sore legs headed towards Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventures at their rainforest camp by the side of the Kinabatangan river. The camp is built for open-air living, it fits seamlessly into the jungle and only two trees had to be removed to make way for the huts and connecting boardwalk. Consequently, we were living right in the jungle, hearing the calls of the passing macaque monkeys, surrounding birdlife and the splash of something big in the swamp. We shared a hut on stilts over the swamp with two other couples, Gaby and Albert and Stephanie and Mike, sleeping on double mattresses on the floor draped by mosquito nets. The arrangements were basic but adequate and everyone seemed to adapt well. At first we were unsure about the riverwater ‘showers’ (a barrel and a bucket) but we got so hot and sticky that any cool water was a relief. We even had a rainwater shower on our first night during a huge thunderstorm that meant our first safari trip out on the river was cancelled.

Malaysian blue fly catcher

Our safari schedule included early morning, late afternoon and night boat safaris combined with day and night treks in the jungle. The wake-up call for the morning boat safari was a bleary 5.30am with just time for a change of clothes and a quick brush of the teeth before we were called to the jetty. The morning river trips were very peaceful and it was wonderful to see the sun rise and hear the jungle waking up. We usually spotted more birds in the morning and we also saw one of our two orang utans during one of the morning boat rides. We saw our first wild orang utan during an afternoon boat safari and had to get out of the boat and trek through deep riverbank mud and through vegetation to get a good view. He was an older male with a long orange goatee and didn’t seem too happy to see us, stripping twigs and branches off his tree before disappearing deeper into the trees to hide. During our boat rides we also saw Borneo gibbons, proboscis monkeys, silvered leaf moneys, plenty of macaque monkeys, common palm civets, monitor lizards, different types of kingfishers and hornbills, eagles and flying foxes. We were amazed by the talents of the guides who could spot even the most camouflaged and hidden animals, even during the night safari with just a spotlight to help them.

Nature's swing

We were in the jungle for a total of four nights/five days by which time it felt like home. The camp is headed by a wonderful team of staff, coordinated by the unique Lan, and from our arrival to our departure we were welcomed warmly and treated as friends. We were impressed by the work hard, play hard attitude of the staff and the sheer amount of fun they had. After breakfast the staff played enthusiastic games of football with anyone who wanted to join in (although I got the impression it was strictly men only) and after lunch it was time to play badminton while spectators watched in hammocks from the sidelines. In the evening, the staff showed their other talents by picking up guitars and tambourines and leading a sing-a-long and general good old time.

The jungle weather seemed to be quite predictable, it gradually warmed up after sunrise, becoming baking hot after lunch and then there was usually the sound of distant thunder which gradually rolled closer for a huge downpour between 6-8pm. During our first night the rain was particularly heavy and in the hut close to ours, the occupants spotted a snake sliding under the roof to try to keep dry! The camp staff were quickly called to help and with much excitement and shrieks, the snake was scared back into a tree by banging on the roof to displace it and encourage it to seek shelter elsewhere. It was identified as a mangrove snake (only mildly venomous) but after than incident we always did a snake check whenever we returned to our hut.

During the quieter times in the schedule, we enjoyed sitting on the boardwalk around the most remote huts and waiting to see which kinds of wildlife we could see. During one of Jon’s birdwatching sessions, he was scanning through the jungle when he saw a familiar item through the binoculars: his North Face trekking shirt hung high in a tree deep in the swamp.  We’d left it outside our hut to dry and while we were out, the macaque monkeys must have got hold of it and had some fun. First jumping on Jon at the orang utan sanctuary and then stealing his shirt in the jungle – it looks like the monkeys have got it in for him!


Part one: Mount Kinabalu and a whole lot of pain

We made it!

Our time in Borneo has been so amazing that we’ve been too busy doing and there hasn’t been enough time for blogging!  To bring you up to speed we’re going to post a few installments over the next couple of days while we’re away snorkelling around Mabul and Sipadan islands. Borneo really does have everything; night markets for cheap food and interesting sights, challenging treks, jungle wildlife and exotic sealife. Each stage of our trip has alone been enough to justify our decision to come here and to show why, we need to go back nine days to our Mount Kinabalu climb.

Mount Kinabalu stands at 4095m high and is Southeast Asia’s biggest mountain. To climb it, it’s necessary to book through an agent to secure a permit and also a bed in the Laban Rata lodge at the end of the first day’s climb. It’s best to arrange the trek in advance but we had managed to arrange it just two days before we wanted to trek at the Sutera Sanctuary Lodges office in Kota Kinabalu. After making the arrangements, we caught a shared taxi the next day to the national park, found some accommodation, checked in for our trek and surveyed the cloud-obscured peaks for clues to what lay ahead.

The morning of the trek we fortified ourselves with chicken noodle soup for breakfast, picked up our packed lunch and had our guide assigned. The trek starts with a gentle walk through the peaceful forest, followed by some steps, then some more steps and after a while we began to realise that it was more or less all steps and one steep climb. The Lonely Planet guidebook describes it as ‘Borneo’s ultimate thighmaster’ which perhaps should have been something of a clue. Nevertheless, on we climbed with just short stops for water and photos. The climb to our accommodation for the night, the Laban Rata lodge, took us about 3 hours by which time we were extremely sweaty and very tired. There are currently electricity supply problems at the lodge so instead of hot showers we had to make do with icy cold ones to revive us! After very quick showers, we devoured our packed lunches and spent the rest of the day enjoying the sun on the lodge’s porch before dinner and an early night to prepare us for the early hours trek to the summit.

Admiring the sunrise

Our alarm call was 2am and after a quick pre-breakfast, we put on our headtorches and started our climb to the top. Unsurprisingly, there were yet more steps but we were feeling good and so managed to get ahead of the crowds and trek at our own pace. Further up towards the summit, there is a fixed white rope to guide trekkers to the top and also to provide assistance when climbing or descending steep sections. We made the summit just before 5am (we were the third and fourth trekkers to make it to the top) and after sitting at the peak for five minutes to admire the distant lightning flashes in the sky, we climbed down a few metres to huddle out of the wind and wait for sunrise. The sun rises quickly here and as it did, we appreciated the views across to the ocean and also the views of what we’d climbed past. The summit landscape is made of sheets of granite, forming a pattern a bit like fish scales, and there are really unusual jaggedy points – all of which we’d missed while climbing past in the dark. After watching the sun rise and taking some photos, it was time to head back down to the lodge and second breakfast. We commented that we’d done more exercise before breakfast than we’d usually have done in a full day but we both knew that more was to come.

After breakfast number two, we began our trek down. The path seemed to have become more wet and slippy overnight so we had to be careful where we stepped and we had a few slides but no accidents. I had the advantage over Jon as about ten minutes into our climb up a kind women had offered me her stout wooden walking stick and luckily, I had accepted. Now we were descending the stick came into it’s own, helping me down the decidedly anti-short-legs steps and helping lessen the impact on my knees. Even with the help of my stick, we were both feeling the effects of the steep downhill steps by about 3km in to our 6km walk down. We struggled on, mentally steeling ourselves before each flights of steps, taking more time to rest and rejoicing as we counted down the trail markers. Finally, after what felt like a very long time, we were at the end of the trek with just a short uphill and a series of stairs to climb before we’d officially finished and we could collapse in the shuttle bus back to the park reception and lunch.

Needless to say, we did very little after that, eating lunch and returning to our accommodation to have a hot shower, change our very smelly trekking clothes and sleep. The pain in our legs slowly morphed into muscle stiffness so for the following four days we found any sort of downwards step and even walking painful. We had been warned but neither of us had ever suffered sore legs like this. Our legs recovered while we were enjoying Borneo Experience Number Two – jungle river safaris which leads us to installment number two coming soon…


King of the swingers

I'm the king of the swingers, the jungle VIP

We have an hour before setting off into the jungle so we thought we’d do a quick post to tell you all about our orang utan adventure this morning at the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary and rehabilitation centre. To paint the scene, there’s a big viewing platform for all the tourists and a feeding platform about 20m away connected to surrounding trees by cables for hungry orang utans to swing along to reach the platform. After waiting in an expectant hush, we saw some trees move and then hands moving along one of the far ropes until our first orang utan came swinging into view! Once on the platform, he had his pick of the pile of bananas and other fruit for a while but it wasn’t too long before a second orang utan swung into view, shortly followed by a mum and baby and an adorable youngster. We were really priviledged to see this many as there’s no guarantee that any orang utans will be seen. We were captivated and made good use of a pair of binoculars and a higher zoom lens to watch them more closely and take photos (thanks Mum and Dad Wood!). We don’t have time to add photos now but they’ll certainly feature in our next post.

Mum and baby

After eating most of the food on the platform, the orang utans swung away one by one, only to be replaced on the platform by macaque monkeys who entertained the crowd by scampering about, fighting over bananas and scuffling with each other. They are very bold and even came over to the viewing platform (cue rapid movement of tourists) and sat on the fences of the boardwalk leading the way back to the visitor centre. One monkey in particular became annoyed at the tourists walking past and after some snarling and baring of teeth, he jumped on Jon! Jon wasn’t hurt as the monkey just jumped on his back and off again but it was enough to scare everyone else in the group. A lady warder had to come and rescue everyone but the monkey even chased her. Apparently the trick is not to look them in the eyes but we think this one was just a nasty character.

Monkey adventures aside, we are fine apart from being boiling hot and sweaty all the time – yuck! We had a stressful time yesterday as we spent all afternoon waiting for a bus in the back of beyond, seeing about five go past, with none of them stopping as they said they were all full (indicated by hand signals!). Just as we were preparing our hitching sign, a guy in a 4×4 pick-up truck pulled in and asked us where we were going. It turned out Benn, a keen liverpool supporter, was going all the way and so gave us a lift for free in his nice air-conditioned, liverpool football club themed car! Thank you Benn if you’re reading this. It was very good luck for us as otherwise it would have messed up all our onward jungle plans.

Off to the jungle now and we’ll update you on our Mount Kinabalu climb next time. It’s been two days since we came down but we can still hardly walk without wincing.


Trekking with Jorge and his two donkeys

Keeping up with the donkeys on day one

Today we returned to Sorata after our four days of camping and trekking. We really enjoyed ourselves and the views were spectacular. Our trek took in three lakes including the laguna glacier at over 5000m. We camped in some amazing places high in the mountains by streams and lakes, and the weather was perfect for trekking (this time) with warm sun and clear blue skies during the day. At night it got cold, especially in our well-worn hired sleeping bags. Jon´s only reached up to his shoulders but luckily before we left we´d been given a blanket each and strict instructions to wrap ourselves up in them before getting into our sleeping bags. Wrapping ourselves up in the blankets and manouevering ourselves into our bags each night took ages but we saved time by not having to undress. We even wore our wooly hats. Due to the temperature dropping quickly once it got dark at about 7pm, we always ate early. Our guide would start cooking around 5pm and we´d get soup followed by rice or pasta (food we had shopped for ourselves before we left). After sunset there really wasn´t a lot to do so we ended up sleeping a lot, from around 7.30pm to 6.30am, albeit fitfully due to fighting the blankets, our makeshift pillows (our clean clothes) and the cold.

At the top and enjoying a break

While having lunch on the second day of our walk we spotted a newly-born baby llama which was struggling to coordinate all its feet while its parents kept a beady eye on two circling hawks. By the time we´d finished our sandwiches it was walking a little bit better. Day three was the toughest day as we had an early start and a long difficult climb across scree slopes and sloping granite slabs. Some were pretty hairy early in the morning when there were still patches of ice but we followed our guide, Jorge,  and took it slowly. The glacier and lake at the top were well worth the climb and we spent the half hour break our guide allowed us taking in the view and taking some photos. From here it was a 2500m descent over a day and a half back to Sorata by which time we´d earned ourselves a tepid shower (as good as it gets here in Bolivia), an ice cream and a cold beer.