25th February-3rd March, 2015
I returned to Borneo: a place I visited during my last adventure around Asia three years ago.
And why? Well, firstly; I discovered that when one flies from the Philippines to Nepal, it actually works out cheaper to go via Kota Kinabalu.
There were a few places I wanted to see last time but sadly missed, due to not having enough time.
But the main reason, really, is that I fricking love Borneo, and the five weeks I spent there back in 2012 were some of the most memorable and exciting from that entire trip.
So, on the morning of 25th of February, James, Chloe and I boarded a plane from Manila. Pedro, who had been our travelling companion for the last four weeks, was flying back home to Taiwan, so it was now just three of us. James and Chloe (the lucky bastards) were going to be spending six weeks in Borneo, in all, but I was just going to be accompanying them for the first few days.
The plane touched down upon Kota Kinabalu in the morning and, after booking tickets for a sleeper bus heading south that evening, we went for a little wander around town. I spent most of that day experiencing flashbacks and feeling fondly nostalgic: walking past a bar and remembering it was where me and a friend drank beer a couple of times, popping into a restaurant to examine the menu and realising that I had eaten there before. Remembering some of the things that I love about Borneo. Such as the crazy equatorial weather: the constant flux between dark clouds and blazing sunlight with blue skies; that damp scent of a storm about to happen, frequently in the air; the occasional rumble of thunder in the distance.
In the evening we boarded the sleeper bus. It was fairly comfortable but unfortunately we had to get off at 3am because it rolled into Lahad Datu early. Luckily there was a 24-hour café open so we took refuge there, eating mie goreng and roti canai while we waited for the Danum Valley Field Centre office to open.
By lunchtime everything was organised and we were upon a 4WD for a bumpy two-hour journey to the Danum Valley Field Centre. We were all very tired by then, so our heads were slumping and our eyes kept rolling back. At one point I was sputtered back into a state of consciousness by James yelling my name. I opened my eyes and, as my vision switched from blurry to focussed, I saw that he was pointing to something outside the window and scrambled for my camera.
A group of bornean pygmy elephants; our first sighting.
A while later we rocked up at the dormitory, where we claimed our beds, and then James and I rustled up a vegetable curry in the communal kitchen. As we were cooking, a middle-aged German guy turned up with his parents and, as soon as I saw his face, I knew that I recognised him from somewhere.
“Errm, this might sound a bit weird…” I said. “But… did I meet you three years ago, when I was last in Borneo?”
“That depends,” he said. “Did you do any diving in Semporna?”
It turned out that he owned the outfit which I had done a few days of scuba diving with – the very same outfit which James and Chloe had booked to do their PADI Open Water courses with next week.
It was one of those ‘Small World’ moments.
We chatted for a while, as he cooked dinner for his parents. And after he left a group of Malaysian students came into communal area to make their dinners’ too.
Danum Valley Field Centre is primarily a research station for scientists – tourists are accepted, if there is room, but they are a minority – so it is not like a hotel or resort: the lodgings are very basic, and specifically designed so that people can do things independently. The Malay students were all from a university in Kota Kinabalu, studying subjects which ranged from the bio-diversity of ferns to renewable energy. They were all quite friendly and talkative, when they weren’t busy tapping away upon their computers.
At the crack of dawn James and I went to the river, hoping to spot a few birds but we weren’t having much luck. I heard a rustling nearby and saw movement in the trees – and I could tell it was some kind of ape by the size of the disturbance it caused – so I went over to investigate.
I was expecting it to be an orang-utan, but what I found was even better; a small group of bornean gibbons.
I think we were very lucky to see them so close; gibbons are creatures which you hear all the time when you’re in the jungle, because they make such a distinctive sound, but they are usually so high up in the canopy and moving so fast that they can be hard to see properly. During my four days in Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, I saw only one gibbon, and that was just a fleeting glance as it swung between the trees.
We went back to the dorm for a while to eat breakfast and, while Chloe was brewing the porridge, this bizarre little creature crawled across the veranda. Apparently it was some kind of mantis.
We then set off again, deciding to walk along the ‘Coffin Trail’, which turned out to be a great place for spotting birds. We kept seeing this really beautiful black bird which had a distinctive feather sticking out from its tail, but none of us managed to get a good picture of it as it was moving around too fast. I did manage to get a fairly decent shot of this small spider hunter though:
About halfway along the trail I suddenly heard a branch snap. What was that? I wondered, expecting some kind of primate. A large tree was obstructing whatever it was from view, so I primed my camera ready and sneaked up behind the trunk to get a peak.
And that – to my utter shock – was the photo I took. I should also mention that it was taken with absolutely no zoom.
I immediately backed away.
“What was that?” James asked, noticing that something was up.
“It’s a f**king elephant!” I exclaimed. “Stay back.”
The creature immediately made a distressed trumpetting sound, followed by a growl. I never knew that an elephant could growl, until that moment, but it sounded like the kind of noise a predator would make.
I carried on pulling back, eventually veering to the side a bit to see if it was still there.
I then discovered that there were actually four of them, and that one was a calf – which was why the the older ones were being so protective. They carried on growling, and Chloe was – quite understandably – scared. I was a bit scared too, but I couldn’t resist taking a few photos as I gradually backed away.
Eventually the elephants stomped off into the trees, their trunks blaring out loud noises along the way. The path was clear, and we could carry on walking.
We reached the coffins shortly after that: they were placed there over 400 years ago by the Orang Sungai (literal translation: ‘River People’) tribes who used to inhabit the banks of the Segama.
We did encounter the elephants again on our way back, but the second incident was far less dramatic: the creatures were busily eating leaves on a little ridge above us and, once they heard us coming, they calmly walked away.
In the afternoon we came across a group of red leaf monkeys, which we observed for a while. They, and the gibbons I saw that morning, were the only primates which I didn’t manage to see last time I was in Borneo so, from that moment on, I could proudly say that I had glimpsed every species of monkey and ape on the island.
At the end of the afternoon we visited Danum Valley Field Centre’s Tree Platform. Due to my fear of heights, I never made it up to the upper level – I barely made it to the first! – but it was still an enjoyable view. We stayed there until dusk.
We wanted to do at least one long trek while we were in Danum Valley, so on the third day we decided to hike along the ‘Rhino Pool’ trail.
We weren’t quite as fortunate with the wildlife that day, but we were so grateful for how blessed we were on the previous one that we didn’t mind. The trail was a very nice one, passing through stunning primary rainforest, and there were lots of sounds, making it audibly one of the finest jungle treks I have ever been on.
We reached the spot for which the trail gets its namesake (a rhino was spotted there by someone in 1995) after two hours, and then we took a different trail to loop back to the headquarters, arriving just in time to eat our lunch by a small beach on the bank of the Segama river.
In the afternoon we took it easy and strolled around a series of small paths near the headquarters. We spotted black squirrels, pygmy squirrels, a few birds, another group of red leaf monkeys, and came across a decomposing tree which was covered in mushrooms and looked like something out of a weird fairytale.
Just before sunset we sat upon a platform overlooking the river and were lucky enough to witness a pair of hornbills land upon the tree opposite us and swoop between the branches for a while just before they flew back to their nest.
That night we were taken out on a guided night walk, where we saw a fleeting glimpse of a sambar deer, lots of spiders, and this lizard:
The three of us decided to venture off our own separate ways for our last day in Danum Valley, so we could spend it pleasing ourselves. I began it by getting up at 5am and walking over to the Observation Tower just before sunrise, so I could hear the dawn chorus, which was a very magical experience.
I wandered aimlessly for rest of the day and saw a few creatures along the way, including a group of red leaf monkeys, more squirrels, and lots birds. Towards the end of the afternoon I came across a group of long tail macaques, and I sat down to watch them for a while as they bonded with each other.
For more photos from Danum Valley, click here.