A Travellerspoint blog

January 2012

Sungai Kinabatangan

Home to the Orang Sungai (people of the river)

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The misty and slightly chilly forests surrounding Mount Kinabalu ( Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site) were a lovely place to spend a few nights , hiking the trails during the day and cuddling up under blankets in our sleeping bags at night after a warm cup of Sabah tea. It was here we finally were able to see the world’s largest flower: the rafflesia, which reaches up to one meter in diameter and only blooms for a maximum of seven days. What's the strangest thing is that the rafflesia is not a visible plant! It's actually a microscopic plant that depends on a type of vine to live in, and only becomes visible when it starts to bloom. That makes sightings even more special so local people have the very convenient custom -for tourists- to set up signs on the road indicating when there's a rafflesia in bloom in their property. This is how we found this one!

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From Kinabalu we headed to the lower Kinabatangan area in search for wildlife.
Deforestation and the ever-growing palm plantations are a well-known threat for Borneo’s unique wildlife, but even though you know it’s coming you can help feeling your heart shrink in anguish when the last three hours of your bus ride there is nothing to be seen other than an endless sea of palm oil cultivation.
In the 1950s the period of intensive logging in Sabah was just beginning, and in the last twenty years, 80% of Sabah’s forest habitat has been destroyed. In the 1980s over-logged forests were re-designated for permanent conversion to agriculture and palm oil plantations soon became dominant. Malaysia is constantly disputing the #1 oil palm producer title against Indonesia, and just the small state of Sabah has 1,400,000 hectares planted.

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Agriculture is a necessity and oil palm sustains major economies and livelihoods, but when you see the plantations reaching all the way to the river bank of one of the most biologically important places on Earth you feel the frustration, anger and despair of witnessing big companies not trying even a bit to make things better! The mighty Kinabatangan is being left with just small pockets of forests throughout its 560 km; too small to maintain viable populations of the animals and isolating one from the other. You would think that leaving a margin of natural forest between the plantation and the river would be the very least the government would enforce in such a unique environment, but to our sad surprise it is not happening, at least in many areas of the Kinabatangan.
However, oil palm plantations are not to be satanized per se. All monocultures have their environmental impacts and oil palm plantations may be a lot better than most of the other crops we are familiarized with. In fact, oil palm is biologically superior to other oil seed crops in terms of efficiency in the land use and productivity. But companies with no environmental consciousness eliminate this partial advantage by extending their crops over an excessive territory, and especially by removing important, beautiful and unique ecosystems to put in lines and lines of palm. Something to think about is that a lot of that palm oil will be used for the growing bio-fuel market! You may not be so happy to pour your biodiesel in your car if you knew where it came from...
In properly designated areas for agriculture palm oil plantations could very well be cultivated in relative low-impact to nature, but even then when Malaysia is getting close to the 5 million hectares the mere volume is sure to have some serious consequences on the environment.

So here we are, cruising down the Kinabatangan, a knot on our throats, looking at the plantations peek out along the riverside or behind the very thin line of forest that attempts to hide them, when the impressive array of wildlife starts to emerge from the remaining jungle.
The first we saw were hornbills flying above us. Borneo has eight species of them, and all can be found in the Kinabatangan. We spotted six of them while here. Above all the Oriental Pied is the most commonly seen, and the Rhinocerous Hornbill one of the most striking and largest (over one meter long!).

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Then our guide Arshad spotted a reticulated python curled up in a tree resting. This beautiful snake reminds you of the boas at home but can grow a lot larger, with historical records reaching the ten meter mark!!!! Please try to picture that by taking a few meter steps wherever you are right now and you won't believe the dimension.

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We then spotted a female orangutan with her baby! She was pretty high up and it was pretty dark by then but the sighting really made us happy, and then just as we were to arrive to the lodge we heard our guide Arshad mumble through a grin "you guys are so lucky", and take us straight to this big male eating ripe figs on a very low branch overhanging the river!
The experience of watching a completely wild orang-utan in his normal behavior, almost completely ignoring us except for a few glances down at us, visibly knowing his superiority in terms of strength and skill in the forest should he have to use them against us is something we will never forget. Orangutans are only found in Borneo and a small part of Sumatra, and at one-hundred kilograms make them the largest tree-dwelling animal in the world. These extremely intelligent, magnificent cousins of ours make a new nest up in a tree each evening where they spend the night, and are also the only great ape outside of Africa. Sadly because of loss of habitat the orangutan population has droped from 180- thousand to under 30 thousand in the last ten years!!!!!!!!!!! We are losing them way too fast.

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But not all is lost. Twenty six thousand hectares in the lower Kinabatangan have been set aside for conservation by the Malay government and WWF is working together with all the stakeholders on a project called Kinabatangan Corridor of Life, in an attempt to reclaim the river banks and linking existing protected blotches. Wild life tourism has skyrocketed in recent years and awareness of the situation is spreading.

So after a very impressive first ride down the river we finally made it to the lodge, where we immediately decided we would spend an added thirteen days in addition to the mere two we had originally planned on. We're posting this blog on our last day here, having experienced a couple of weeks we will always remember thanks to the wonderful new friends we made in the staff (Arshad, Risiman, Adika, Nana, Diana, Amy Vanessa, Ping, Joel, City, Lida, Rosita, Marcell...), fellow travelers on their own adventures, the joint peace and excitement of being in the jungle and of course, the spectacular wildlife! Let us share some pictures of the creatures we encountered throughout our stay.

Salt Water crocodile known more from Australia than Borneo inhabits this river. This is the biggest crocodile in the world reaching sometimes more than seven meters from nostrils to tail!

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The Pygmy Elephant (Elephas maximus borniensis), previously thought to have been introduced from the main land as a gift to the Sultan of Brunei, is now a recognized subspecies as genetic evidence suggests they have been isolated for thousands of years. These huge beasts are the smallest elephants in Asia, and travel along the riverside forests. They are somewhat shy creatures and sometimes are not seen by the guides for months at a time. We were extremely lucky and spotted them on a few different occasions. Sometimes we would hear a very loud noise, much like a gunshot but louder: it's the locals firing bamboo cannons into the air to scare away the elephants and prevent them from raiding the crops! Our own lodge actually also has to take safety precautions by setting an electric fence around the cabins to prevent people from getting trampled over in unexpected encounters between humans and elephants. Not far from here an Australian was killed two months ago by a bull elephant while she was photographing it.

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The western tarsier is a primate and one of the most unique looking creatures we can think of. The guides had told us they were around but not seen often. We were very lucky and were able to see this guy in two different occasions during our hikes at night. This is the mammal with the biggest eyes and longest legs in the world (in relationship with its size)!

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Slow Loris is actually a primate also and could be considered POISONUS! It secrets enzymes from its armpits that when mixed with its saliva create a noxious substance for its predators. In fact there has been a report of a human death from an anaphylactic shock after being bit by a Slow Loris. This nocturnal arboreal mammal moves very deliberately and slow as its name suggests. Cindy spotted this one!

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Banded Linsang is one of the Civets. Civets are cat/ferret- like creatures and the Banded Linsang one of the least encountered. One of the guides here had never seen one and the other just once before after years of working in the forest! This very special and elusive civet has a very long tail, a long neck and retractable claws just like cats (the only civet with this characteristic), and has a coloration similar to the ocelots and margays in Costa Rica and Mexico. We can’t believe we actually have a picture of a Spotted Linsang!!!!! Wooohoooooo!

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Hiking at night yielded some amazing animals. The kingfishers in Borneo are just outstanding and we spotted several species sleeping during these hikes.

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Pittas are also beautiful birds that we encountered during the nightwalks.

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But the animal we encountered every single time we went out was not necessarily the most loved. Checking yourself for leeches every few minutes was indispensable, and flicking them away may sometimes present a challenge. But they are painless and not known to transmit any disease, and after a while you start to tolerate these interesting creatures. Cindy even began to think they were cute (as long as they were on a leaf and not sucking her blood).

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And we will never get tired of seeing the Proboscis Monkeys! They are so beautifull and interesting to watch and hear. Adult males can weigh up to 22 kg, making them one of the largest monkeys in the world!

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Believe it or not we actually saw many more animals, but we can't post everything. What we do know is that surely the Kinabatangan will be one of the highlights of our trip.

From here we move on to Danum Valley, an amazing primary forest with a serious research station and then going to the world famous Sipadan for what promises to be one of the best diving of our lives.

Keep checking our blog and we'd love to get your comments!

Un abrazo!

Juan y Cindy

Posted by juan y Cindy 18:26 Archived in Malaysia Comments (10)

Borneo!

Bako National Park.

So we finally made it to Borneo, a wild land Juan had always dreamed of visiting, and the dream did come true as soon as we arrived to Bako National Park. As soon as we arrived to Kutching in Sarawak (southern Borneo) we went at our first chance to Bako, without reservations but with a firm decision and managed to stay for three nights.

We rode a boat that would take us down this beautiful river through the mangroves, with very graphic and disturbing signs warning tourists of the dangerous estuary crocodile (the largest in the world!). As soon as we got off the boat to this lush coastline a troop of Silver Leaf Langours welcomed us. I (Juan) was so exited I couldn't control myself. We checked in and headed for the trails, not twenty minutes had passed and we spotted the Proboscis monkeys!!!! Remember nowhere else in the world but Borneo is home to this peculiar species.

Adult Male Proboscis Monkey

Adult Male Proboscis Monkey

I was taking pictures of this beauty when they called me that a boatman had spotted a snake! I ran as fast as I could to find a beautiful Waglers Pitviper!

Female Waglers Pit viper.

Female Waglers Pit viper.

The Bearded Pigs (which can reach to up to 120 kilos!) walked in and out of the forest with their offspring.

Bearded Pig

Bearded Pig

Dung Beetle.

Dung Beetle.

As we hiked Dung Beetles worked arduously carrying their babies' provision somewhere safe.

Male (small) and female (large) Waglers pitviper

Male (small) and female (large) Waglers pitviper


And as if it weren't enough we spotted another Pitviper. The next morning when we woke up and went straight to check if she was still there I find the surprise that a male had come to visit her. He actually stayed on top of her for the next three days!

Rock Hopper

Rock Hopper

Walking by the shore hundreds of Rock Hoppers ran back to the water as we aproached them! I had never seen this amazing fish and was just fascinated by them. Cindy had her first encounter with them in Fiji andwas equally fascinated.

Adult Male Probosis Monkey

Adult Male Probosis Monkey

Believe it or not in all the excitment I left my charger for the camera back at the hostel so my battery ran out early thge second day... So Cindy and I went on a seven hour hike walking through the jungle hoping to see some magnificent animal like the King Cobra. We spoted a Gliding Lizard but couldn't catch it and because I had no camera we couldn't photograph the many species of native Pitcher plants that call Bako their home.

Bako was just amazing! And Sabah is supposed to be the real thing when it comes to wildlife so we are here today in Kota Kinabalu, planning our way into the heart of Sabah! We will keep you posted on our next sightings.

Proboscis monkeys in the mangrove.

Proboscis monkeys in the mangrove.

Posted by juan y Cindy 07:11 Archived in Malaysia Comments (4)

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur came as a shock to us jungle hermits with its immense sky scrapers, speeding air railways, ten-story shopping malls with roller coasters inside them and its overflowing ocean of people. The transport system is easy and fun, with some trains having women-only wagon options, absolutely everyone being courteous and friendly, an exciting temple, museum or market just about at every stop of the way. As soon as we got off the plane we met the nicest taxi driver who taught us the most important phrase of our stay in Malaysia: "Terima Kahsi" (thank you), which is one of the only ones that has actually stuck to us so far =). So with that grateful attitude we were able to really enjoy our first week in Asia, in the great and modern but also traditional KL. In apparent contrast with the latest technologies and architecture is the very conservative dress code, mostly in women but also in men, the first wearing long and flowy gowns and covering head and neck with colorful scarves or full burkas when Muslim, or simply procuring discreet lengths when Indian or Chinese. Another imponent sign of tradition is the sudden burst of beautiful, single, male a cappella singing, which flows mystically out of the mosques and into the busy streets of the city. Food is also remarkable, with most every little stand on the street offering ridiculously cheap dishes with new vegetables and outstanding flavor. All of this to say that our introduction to Malaysia was full of new and fun experiences, our favorite outings being the Central Market (full of everything you'd want to have!), the unbearably ticklish fish spa, the KL Bird Park with its gorgeous feathers, the national museum, the Batu Caves (dirty but full of crazy macaques), our New Year's Eve and the Batik lesson on the last day.
A great first week before our adventures in the jungle!

The active streets of KL.

The active streets of KL.


Muruga, also known as Lord Subramaniam.

Muruga, also known as Lord Subramaniam.


Biggest Pigeon in the world.

Biggest Pigeon in the world.


Thean Hou Temple.

Thean Hou Temple.


DR Fish.

DR Fish.


Longtail Macaque pretending to be harmless.

Longtail Macaque pretending to be harmless.


Cindy and her Batik experiment.

Cindy and her Batik experiment.

Posted by juan y Cindy 06:39 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

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