Monday, January 31, 2011

Sightings


We awaken to the sound of light rain but are eager to get out and explore on our last morning here. We set out by ourselves toward the canopy and are surprised see a mouse deer dash across the road. We are scheduled to meet our guide at 8:30 so don’t have too much time but walk across one canopy bridge and enjoy the early morning air. The sky is clearing and we are overjoyed to see a small patch of blue sky. Hopefully it will be a decent day.

Breakfast at the lodge is delightful as usual, with a different assortment of eggs, pastries, fresh fruit and Asian offerings . We are all prepared with the appropriate clothing. Alas, it is raining again but we are determined to see an orangutan today and all 4 of us are charged up for the final hike. We set off on a nature trail along the very brown river when our guide hears on his radio that an orangutan has been spotted by researchers along a different trail. We quickly head back and down a different path. By now, it is raining heavily and we hurry, sloshing through muddy puddles and wet trees. We wonder if he is going to still be there when we arrive. Before long, we see a small group of students from the field research station, sitting on the ground with binoculars, looking up into the trees. There he is, a large copper colored orangutan, going from branch to branch. We follow him, this small group, walking around among the leaves and puddles, our eyes focused upwards in the tree canopy, totally disregarding our caution regarding leeches. The guides tell everyone to avoid standing below him and not to invade his personal space. They say he may drop pee, poop, branches, etc. Sometimes in their swinging from branch to branch, they miscalculate or grab a dead branch and land on the ground. It is fascinating to see him so close and in such a natural environment. We are all so thrilled to have had the opportunity to sight one in the wild. He eventually moves out of sight, and we continue down this trail along the river, still in the rain. By the time we turn back, we are all muddy again and back at the lodge, go through our leech seeking routine one more time. This time we are shocked to find so many – our traipsing around among the leaves made us magnets for them. Ray finds one on his abdomen, bloody, ugh. One more in his armpit. I find one on my abdomen, just ready to suck. We find them on our leech socks and pants and do a thorough cleaning of our stuff before packing everything away.

We have our final lunch at the lodge and load up the Toyota Land Cruiser for the trip back. The driver looks from side to side looking for animals. We bump along the road when the driver suddenly stops and points out an orangutan in the top of a tree down slope from the road. He is laying on his back, arm curled around his head, lounging. He is close enough to see with the naked eye and we are all thrilled. What a delightful way to end the trip! It has been quite an adventure, and not one I would recommend to everyone but has been a unique experience and one we will never forget. It has given us a new
perspective on life in the rainforest and the need for conservation of our resources to protect these animals.

Our flight takes off from Lahad Datu in the pouring rain. It is clear that they are used to this weather as it doesn’t seem to deter the propeller plane from taking off. Furthermore, they are well prepared by handing each passenger an open umbrella to walk to the plane, and taking it from each person as they enter the plane. Good customer service by Malaysian Airlines! The flight lands in Kota Kinabalu and we see groups of people standing outside a waiting plane near a runway. We later learn that there had been a bomb threat and these passengers going to Jakarta were 3 hours delayed. We transfer to a flight to Miri, arriving late in the evening. Air Asia which we fly, is a local commuter airline, with very, very low fares, which allows anyone to be able to fly between cities in Malaysia –great concept. A lot of young people traveling home for the New Year holidays.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Leeches and Monkeys





We decided as a group to do an early morning hike before breakfast thinking that early morning might be feeding time for animals in the wild. Eager to see some animals, we set off at 6:30am with umbrellas and leech socks. It is clear but very humid and we walk uphill toward the canopy. I start out with a poncho, which I quickly discard after feeling like I am walking in a hot sauna. Off of the main dirt road, there are 5 canopy walkways and several platforms of different heights and it is mystical being above the rainforest and in the clouds so early in the morning. There is no feeling quite like it. The air is damp and moisture fogs our glasses and camera lenses. There is a cacophony of forest noises – birds, frogs and insects, all awake at this early hour. What a treat to be among them. I overcome my fear of swinging bridges and walk gingerly along the canopy paths overwhelmed by this untouched and pristine part of the world. What lies below in the dense foliage, I wonder. How special this area is, the acres of protected land. How can we preserve such places from encroachment by development and how do we sustain the wildlife that live here? On the way back, our guide points out a red leaf monkey having his breakfast on top of a tree, right by the side of the road. Hand to mouth, he enjoys his food, not bothered by us watching him. A few minutes later, another one appears and the two frolick in the trees before disappearing. We are all excited about our first sighting.

Breakfast is an elegant spread of eggs, noodles, fried rice, breads and meats. The staff are very responsive to our needs and cater so nicely to the guests. We feel quite pampered. After breakfast, we set out again, though this time not as enthusiastically, as it is pouring. We hike up to the overlook, a 1.5 mile hike uphill in the rain, muddy, slippery and very humid. We sweat like hogs and try to avoid touching leaves so to stay away from the leeches which come out in droves in the rain! Sounds unpleasant? I would say it is not the most pleasant hike we have ever done, but a true rainforest experience. The cloud and fog are heavy and we do not see much from the overlook. Totally soaked inside and out, our pants and leech socks covered in mud and harboring some leeches, we end our hike. Other than millipedes, we don’t see any other life and decide to call it a day as far as trekking. We pick off a few leeches from inside our boots, on the leech socks and try to clean our pants and leech socks as best we can. It rains and rains and rains, lots of muddy puddles where even animals wouldn’t be caught outside! I find it more pleasant to sit at the lodge, looking out over the river and watch the clouds and mist roll past. Reading a book on their patio is bliss.

We spend much of our evening drying our clothes in preparation for tomorrow. We decide not to do the scheduled night walk as our guide tells us that we most likely will not see much in the dark when it is raining so hard. We learn that this is monsoon season (Oct. - March) and wonder if we should have picked a different time of year to come out. There is internet access in the lodge, no TV in the rooms or lodge, so we read and head to bed early, planning an early morning hike on our own.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Rainforest




We leave before dawn for a 7am flight to Lahad Datu. The airport is empty except for the few waiting for this flight and I wonder where all these people are heading to. They certainly don’t look like they are going jungle trekking. One elderly couple comes on an ambulance; he has a hospital band around his wrist. Perhaps he was discharged from the hospital and is going home to this remote village. On the tarmac is a small propeller plane. We board and much of the plane is empty allowing everyone a window seat. We fly at a low elevation and thus get a wonderful view of Sabah, the northern part of Borneo. Borneo, the third largest island in the world is represented by Brunei representing 1%, Malaysia 26% (Sabah and Sarawek) , and Indonesia 76% (Kalimantin). The Borneo rainforest is rich in diversity with 221 species of mammals and 420 species of birds, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, home to one of the only remaining species of endangered Borneo orangutans, and refuge for the Asian Elephant, Sumatran Rhino, Borneo Clouded Leopard, and Dayak Fruit Bat. We hope to see a few of these on this trip.

We take off over the South China Sea and coastal Sabah (northern Borneo) where we can see the islands, the houses on stilts along the island of Gaya, and then heavily forested mountains. Heading east, we can see Mount Kinabalu, its peak at 13, 435 ft. rising above the clouds. People have told us it is possible to trek the mountain, which takes 2 days, the second requires setting out around 3am. The rivers are brown curly ribbons running through lush green forest. Soon we see acres upon acres of what appears to be trees that are pinwheel shaped, forming interesting geometric patterns. I soon realize these are palm groves and my heart sinks to think that all of this land has been cleared of forest to plant palms. Apparently half of the annual global timber (hardwood plywood) is supplied by Borneo and thus logging has taken away much of the rainforest. Palms grown for palm oil encroach on the remaining forest.

The area is remote and tiny villages of a few lone houses appear between the groves. There is a clearing below and a single landing strip runs next to a line of metal shacks that are people’s homes. This is Lahad Datu - an actual small town with a few stores and gas station; much more developed than I had imagined. The airport is a single room with a whirring fan that does a fairly decent job of creating air movement in the very heavy and moist warm air. Gray clouds threaten rain. There is a single baggage conveyor sitting about 3 feet off the ground, that is not more than 10 feet long. A few plastic chairs line the wall and most of the local people are standing outside the main door. We are greeted by people from the Borneo Rainforest Lodge with a 4 wheel drive, who take us and another couple to their main office a few blocks away. We are met by the people we have been emailing and settle our account. One young man shows us where we are on the map and gives us some basic information; our bags are loaded on the back of a Toyota 4 Runner. The other couple is also from the US and we will be hiking with them. Guests are grouped by 4's and remain together throughout the stay. The 4 of us crowd into the SUV and are ready for the drive, having taken our Dramamine, and are prepared for a bumpy ride to the lodge.

The Toyota 4 Wheel Drive, fairly new, with A/C and good shock absorption, bumps along the sometimes gravel, sometimes muddy, sometimes dirt road, passing through a few checkpoints, each leading to more undeveloped roads. Although not terribly windy, there are some potholes and dips where we are jolted upright! Dense forest lines the road which is basically uninhabited-we encounter only one other SUV from the lodge going the opposite direction. We all agree, that it is not as bad as we had anticipated. After 2 1/2 hours, we finally arrive at the Lodge and are greeted by several staff who take our luggage and present each of us with a bamboo leaf lei. They take us to the top of the stairs, and it suddenly feels like we have been transported in time. In the middle of the jungle sits this beautiful lodge built of hardwoods, with high ceilings, which is beautifully decorated, open air on all sides with hardwood floors and several seating areas of rattan and upholstered armchairs. There is a large bar in the center of this huge area and small dining tables toward the back and on the adjoining balcony, all overlooking the river and forested mountainside. The lodge rooms are individual units all connected by elevated wooden boardwalks. The lodge is surrounded by lush vegetation - bushes and flowing trees. It is a lovely setting and we are treated to a nice buffet lunch of both Asian dishes and salad fixings. After lunch, we are briefed and scheduled for our first nature walk at 3:30. We learn that there is a set routine of activities, 4-5 day walks, night walk, and evening ride.

The adventure begins here as right before 3pm, the rain begins to fall, a drizzle turning into a downpour right before our nature walk. The guide decides to give us a video tour and introduction as we wait out the rain. The afternoon shower usually only lasts a few hours. After watching several dvds about the area, the four of us opt to go out in the rain, eager to see some wild animals! We are highly encouraged to purchase leech socks, simple loose stocking shaped covers that are sewn of cotton/polyester fabric and tie below the knee. You wear them over your socks and pant legs, inside your shoes. Fortunately, we had brought waterproof hiking boots. We are given large umbrellas since it is way too warm and humid for rain ponchos. The trail runs in the woods and we climb over tree roots and slosh through puddles; the ground is very wet and muddy. There is the sound of frogs, insects and animals, and falling rain. Leeches, what are they? The leeches are a lesson and adventure in themselves and we get an in depth lesson as they like the rain and warm wet bodies. They look like skinny worms that can extend and stretch their bodies. Apparently, they have suction cups at each end of their bodies, which they use to attach themselves to you. They look like a dancing worm, stretching themselves out toward us, trying to reach any part of us in order to adhere. They then crawl to find open skin and proceed to suck your blood. We weren’t too concerned at first, as the guide didn’t make too much of the fact that we would encounter them. However, we come to realize after the hike, that they can quickly burrow around your clothes, land between your fingers, or in my case, land on my neck. Feeling a sensation that something was on my neck, I brushed my hand back there to find something attached to my skin. I got to him before he began to suck and uncoupled him from me. They are difficult to get off as they quickly can attach to your finger! B. who was hiking with us, found one between his fingers, which left a bloody mess and continued to bleed, not profusely, but more like a shaving cut, for an hour. Leeches apparently deposit an anticoagulant as they suck. If you watch them on a leaf or rock, they seem to stretch out toward you as they sense your body heat, and almost jump to attach to your skin or clothes. Not dangerous, but they can quickly cause you to become phobic, thinking they are all over your body! Certainly not for the faint of heart.

We didn’t see any animals on this hike but did hear that others had seen an orangutan near the road. We were still hopeful and enthusiastic, despite the rain. We retired to the lodge to remove our soggy and muddy gear and check each other for leeches, reminding me of monkeys in the wild, which we didn't seem to be that far removed from. Dinner was buffet style, an interesting and delicious assortment of Asian and Western dishes. I am particularly attracted to the Malaysian curries and chili prawns. There is a table of fresh mangoes, melons and papayas at each meal. After dinner, we head out for a night drive in a misty rain which clears to a decent evening. We start out in the 4 wheel drive pick up truck, with our guide riding on a garden bench tied to the floor of the cargo area. In the middle of the dark jungle, we transfer to the flatbed of a truck, equipped with benches along both sides. We ride along the bumpy road, holding on tightly as the road is bumpy, while our guide, perched above the cab, shines a huge spotlight into the dark forest. Amazingly enough, he finds a leopard cat, civet, and flying squirrels by looking for eyes reflecting off his flashlight like little dots in the trees. My vision is not so sharp and I have a difficult time seeing them, even when he points them out with his green laser pointer. Through the binoculars, I am amazed to see the face of a leopard cat staring back at me. After a couple of hours of looking at eyes in shining back at us from treetops, we head back to the lodge.

Our room is closed in, with screens and glass on the doors and windows. There are no mosquito nets, and no need for them, as we had read about online. The floors are varnished wood and a powerful ceiling fan provides cooling. The bathroom is modern with a wonderful shower. The sliding glass door leads to a covered patio. Some of the rooms overlook the river, others the forest. We spend some time drying our clothes with the hairdryer - the air is so damp that our clothes seem to absorb moisture as they hang there. We fall asleep to the sounds of the rainforest - the insects and frogs calling and the pattering of rain.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Malaysia First Impressions



The hotel offers a simple breakfast of Western and Asian fare. First item on the agenda is to find a SIM card for the Malaysian phone which will require a walk in to town. Kota Kinabalu, a coastal city and capital of Sabah, was most certainly not designed for foot traffic. We don’t see a traffic signal for many blocks and the sidewalks are uneven and absent in areas. Crossing the main street in front of the hotel is a major challenge and we quickly learn that standing on the edge of the road waiting for traffic to clear is not the correct solution unless you have an entire day to spare. We end up doing the quick dash across the 3 lanes of traffic and as the day goes on, learn to do the lane by lane crossing method of the locals. The plan is to go to the Jettison Harbor and take a ferry to one of the islands. At the harbor office, we discover that Gaya Island, the largest island is a private resort, accessible only through the resort boats. In order to get to the opposite side of the island where people live in traditional houses on stilts, we would have to charter a ride with a private boat and we are somewhat leery of doing so. The other islands are forested with beaches for snorkeling. After spending some time on the pier, we decide to walk the town instead. Walking does not appear to be a favorite pastime of residents as it is warm and very humid; the shopping mall is where most people hang out. I now understand why Ray spends his life in a shopping mall when in Malaysia!

We walk through the large city market, a covered expanse of small stalls selling fruits, vegetables, dry goods and meats, and we see how local Malays shop. You can find just about any kind of foodstuff in the street market.

In contrast, the mall is a 8-10 story affair, with offices on the top 4 levels and an assortment of shops on the lower 4. As you go up the levels, the stores are more upscale, with Starbucks, Puma, Adidas etc. on the upper level. I am delighted to find some sandals at a price of $8US.

Sitting at Starbucks, we surf the net and find a well rated place for dinner. It is a bit of a challenge finding it and we sort of end up there, not realizing where we were. It is a bit like an open market with restaurants along the inside walls, a corrugated metal roof on top and whirring fans. Tables are shared by the restaurants. Fish tanks are at one end. You select your fish, and place your order. The food is acceptable, not fancy, but filling and fresh; the ambience interesting. The hotel employees are having their annual party and we laugh as we walk by - all of them are dressed in Western gear, cowboys in jeans and hats. Thus ends our first day in Malaysia.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Leaving California

It’s a beautiful day in California as leave on our Malaysian adventure. This was somewhat of a difficult trip to plan as the travel sites had very few reviews from tourists going to Borneo. Therefore, some of this trip will be “wing it as we go” and I am not too sure what these places will look like, and don’t really know what to expect about transportation and points of interest. The United flight is fairly empty and we board early to find lots of empty seats. The guy across the aisle tells me there are many seats in business class. Alas, we should have requested one. It is a 12 hour flight to Seoul and 3 movies later, full of terrible food, we arrive in a country buried in winter. Below, the terrain is heavily mountainous, gray with a dusting of white, giving it a very somber and bleak look. I wonder if the city is as gray as it appears from the air, or perhaps neon lights give it life and color. My thoughts turn to the landing and I wonder if we will have to walk outside to get to the terminal. I am dressed for the tropics, certainly not prepared for the 20 degree temperature outside. Fortunately, a jetway appears and we deplane directly in to the terminal. It is afternoon, but the airport is eerily quiet and empty except for the passengers on this United flight. The Star Alliance lounge, as typical of Asian cities, is well equipped and offers a nice selection of food and drink. The kimchee mixed with canned corn is particularly good. Boarding Malaysian Air, we embark on a 7 hour flight to Kota Kinabalu, in northern Borneo.

It is 11pm. Walking outside, we are hit by the moisture laden air, which sits heavily on us. Our taxi drops us off at the Hotel Shangri-la, not to be confused with the Shangri-la Resort, the 5 star luxury hotel on the coast.